(Bloomberg) -- The collapse of an immigration gambit engineered by moderate Republicans in the House has exposed them to attacks from the right and the left just as they’re facing already tough re-election bids that could tip the balance of power in Washington.
About two dozen House Republicans, led by Florida’s Carlos Curbelo and California’s Jeff Denham, attempted an end-run around their party leaders last month by teaming up with Democrats to force votes on immigration legislation that would, among other things, create a path to citizenship for undocumented youths brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
It was a bold and rare move designed to earn them points for bipartisanship in their home districts, where the party split among voters is narrow and sympathy for the undocumented young people known as dreamers runs high.
But they abandoned that effort earlier this month in favor of negotiating a GOP-only bill with conservatives that would dial back protection for dreamers, provide money for President Donald Trump’s border wall and cut legal immigration. That came crashing down Thursday when House GOP leaders, knowing the bill couldn’t pass, postponed a vote until next week.
Then Trump pulled the rug out on Friday, with a tweet telling Republicans the entire effort was “wasting their time.”
Now the GOP moderates are under fire from conservatives for pushing a bill that some of them call “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants and from Democrats for teaming up with hardliners and failing.
“Time and time again, folks like Jeff Denham want credit for being reformers, but just like 2014 they have zero follow-through and end up as a rubber stamp for whatever the Republican Party leadership wants,” Josh Harder, the Democrat facing Denham in a competitive San Joaquin Valley district, said in an interview.
The only way to fix the immigration system, Harder argued, is to elect Democrats to control Congress.
Democrats need to flip 23 Republican-held seats to regain a House majority -- and history and the public mood indicate they are well-positioned. Since the end of World War II, the party in control of the White House has, on average, had a net loss of 26 House seats in midterm elections. Polls asking voters which party they’d prefer in congressional races have consistently shown Democrats with an advantage. Immigration, along with health care, is often at the top of the list of issues they care about.
House GOP leaders are forging ahead with another immigration vote next week after the bill gets modified to try to address objections from conservatives. Denham said Republicans are working to resolve two lingering issues involving employer verification for workers and and agriculture jobs.
“While we’ve all been in negotiations the last several weeks, we feel like we’ve continued these good discussions, but two new issues came up,” he said on Thursday. “So we’re going to spend the weekend and delay a vote until next week and see if we can come to a compromise on those two final issues."
But Representative Ryan Costello, a Pennsylvania Republican who signed on to the original effort to force votes on immigration, was among the lawmakers on Friday who said Trump’s tweet stalled what little momentum the legislation had.
"Trump based so much on having the wall and here it was on a platter, along with the Ag provisions we really need," Costello said. "And he just torpedoed it."
Costello isn’t seeking re-election, but for his moderate colleagues who are running the chaos over immigration will make their campaigns tougher.
“They are in trouble. If they thought that they could count on Trump, they should have had a word with his creditors and ex-wives,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in California. “The moderates will never satisfy the hard-line restrictionists, who will always disdain them as squishes. And now, by trying to work with party leadership, they’ve alienated people who back the dreamers.”
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, the Democratic favorite to take on Curbelo this fall, said Thursday that he “betrayed the hollow promises he has made to dreamers” and “handed over all leverage” to give them a path to citizenship.
Curbelo spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez said he hasn’t given up on trying to negotiate a bill for dreamers that can become law. "Should it fail, he is prepared to take the necessary steps to continue forcing this issue to be a priority that his colleagues cannot ignore," she said, arguing that the two-term congressman has "put everything he has into securing a permanent solution for dreamers."
The disarray comes as Trump and Republicans are trying to control the damage caused by his “zero tolerance” policy that has produced harrowing images of young children being separated from parents after they are arrested for crossing the border illegally. The policy has been widely condemned, including by many Republicans, as inhumane and Trump was forced to backtrack.
“The border crisis has become a big political liability for the GOP. Cruelty to children offends an important bloc of voters: normal human beings,” Pitney said.
David Wasserman, the House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said the immigration fallout may be felt more in districts with many white suburban professionals than in areas with large Hispanic populations.
“The blue wave is much more a suburban, professional, female phenomenon than a younger Latino phenomenon,” he said. “And the images coming from the border are generating as much or more outrage from suburban moms as they are from young and Latino voters.”
Trump nevertheless told the party to wait for a “RED WAVE” in November in a series of tweets on Friday.
“Elect more Republicans in November and we will pass the finest, fairest and most comprehensive Immigration Bills anywhere in the world. Right now we have the dumbest and the worst,” he wrote. “Dems are doing nothing but Obstructing. Remember their motto, RESIST! Ours is PRODUCE!”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.