(Bloomberg) -- House Republicans are rushing to assemble a compromise immigration bill for a vote next week alongside an existing conservative proposal, a strategy that a White House official told GOP lawmakers has President Donald Trump’s blessing.
Stephen Miller, the main architect of the Trump administration’s approach on immigration, met with GOP lawmakers at the Capitol on Wednesday and told them this was probably their last and best chance to pass conservative immigration legislation, according to a person in the room who asked not to be identified when describing private meetings.
The person said Miller assured lawmakers that Trump supports a plan laid out by House leaders late Tuesday that will put two immigration bills on the floor next week: a GOP compromise bill being pulled together by leaders of different Republican factions and one favored by conservatives that is sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia.
Lawmakers from the conservative Republican Study Committee told Miller, however, that immigration is such a hot-button issue in their districts that they need an explicit and public Trump tweet -- not just a closed door meeting with a staffer -- to give them political cover to vote for legislation that hardliners could label as “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, according to the person in the meeting.
The political instinct for Republicans to stay in Trump’s shadow leading up to the November congressional elections was reinforced Tuesday. South Carolina Republican Mark Sanford, a frequent Trump critic, was defeated in the Republican primary after the president delivered a last-minute attack and endorsed his challenger. That came a week after an incumbent Republican House member who also criticized Trump was forced into a runoff in Alabama.
Nowhere is the need for cover more important than on the issues of immigration and border security, which Trump made a central part of his campaign and a reoccurring theme in his policy demands.
Trump supports both the Goodlatte bill and the GOP compromise bill since they check off all the White House’s policy priorities, and Miller encouraged Republicans to consider voting “yes” on both measures, according to the person who heard his presentation.
House Speaker Paul Ryan urged his moderate members to pursue a Republican-only solution to avoid being forced into floor votes he couldn’t control by a petition signed by moderate Republicans and all Democrats. The GOP agreement to vote next week on the Goodlatte bill and the GOP compromise bill was the result of that negotiation, which didn’t include any Democrats.
Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican who participated in the negotiations, said it’s possible that both pieces of legislation will fail on the House floor.
Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who chairs the far-right Freedom Caucus, cautioned against rallying around a bill that hasn’t been drafted yet because “the details are very ambiguous at this point.” He said he personally is “favorably disposed to seriously considering” the compromise bill, but he’s reserving judgment until he sees the legislative text.
"I think at this point the general concepts the president supports,” Meadows said. "But at this point no one in the White House has seen any legislative text. No one on the Hill has seen any legislative text."
Meadows said he expects to see legislative text in the next three days. Staff members for House leadership are drafting the bill according to the policy outlines hammered out by leaders of different factions in closed-door meetings over the past few weeks.
Participants in this small circle of negotiators have a rough sketch of the outline, which is what Miller described to the RSC.
The compromise bill would create a special category of merit-based visas that would be available not just for Dreamers -- undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children -- but also for children of immigrants who come to the U.S. legally on H-2A and H-2B visas. GOP negotiators are still working out how long those visas would last before recipients can apply for citizenship.
Opening this new kind of visa up to other young immigrants helps soothe conservative resistance to providing a “special” pathway for people who crossed the border illegally -- even as children -- over those who entered legally.
This pool of visas would be offset by eliminating the diversity visa lottery for people from underrepresented countries, which was one of Trump’s original policy requests. It would also remove some kinds of family members that could be sponsored by people who have attained citizenship: spouses and minor children could still be sponsored, but siblings could not.
The question of whether parents could receive a family preference visa is a sticking point for conservatives, who say that in many cases the parents are the very people who knowingly broke the law by bringing their children illegally. Immigration advocates, however, say drawing the line at parents would further fracture families.
Jeff Denham, a California Republican involved in the talks, said the compromise bill will also change the detention rules that the Trump administration has interpreted to separate children from their families. He said there will be new limits on how immigrants can apply for asylum.
Denham said that the Dreamers who would be eligible for the new visa category include the roughly 1.8 million young immigrants who meet the criteria, not just the 700,000 counted in the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Republican leaders promised to introduce a separate bill before August to overhaul the guest worker program and mandate that all states use the E-Verify system to check the immigration status of employees. This pledge helped convince some members to hold off from signing a petition that moderate Republicans began last month to try to force floor votes on four different immigration bills, including some favored by Democrats.
GOP Representative Steve King of Iowa said former White House aide Steve Bannon met separately with a group of immigration hardliners and urged them not to back any form of "amnesty" for young undocumented immigrants because it would discourage conservatives from voting in the November congressional election. That would cost Republicans their House majority, King said, which would allow Democrats to impeach Trump.
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