Originally Published in Politico
Sarah Ferris, Heather Caygle and Laura Barón-López - March 4, 2021
A dismal whip count came back this week showing House leaders don’t yet have the votes to pass the bill on the floor.
Top House Democrats have promised to put key immigration bills on the floor this month — but President Joe Biden’s sweeping overhaul won’t be one of them.
The issue of what to do with Biden’s comprehensive immigration plan has bedeviled Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team, particularly after a disappointing whip count came back this week showing they don’t yet have the votes to pass the bill on the floor, according to people familiar with the talks.
So now Democrats are moving ahead with an alternative plan: Move the Biden bill through committee while the full House votes on more targeted immigration legislation that already enjoys broad caucus support.
The chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), confirmed the path forward, calling the Biden proposal both “important and serious.”
“We need to engage in some consultation with key members and stakeholders, but I see no reason why we wouldn’t mark it up when we reconvene in April,” Nadler said in a statement to POLITICO.
Biden’s proposal is a top priority for progressives and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who say it’s critical to take action in the early months of his term. But Democratic leaders were never going to bring up a bill on the floor that would fail — putting them on a tightrope as they try to keep all factions of their diverse caucus on board for a realistic approach to one of Washington’s thorniest issues. Further complicating matters, the White House has taken more of a hands-off approach to the bill’s future in the House, several lawmakers and aides said.
“We need to have a discussion. It was put together by a few people. I don’t know what the role of the administration has been,” said Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), a border-state Democrat who belongs to the centrist Blue Dog Coalition. “But I have a sense that it’s just not quite ready yet.”
“It’s like we have three pedals, and we’re pushing every one of them with just as much strength,” she said, referring to a pair of other, more targeted immigration bills that will hit the floor in two weeks.
Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) huddled on Tuesday evening to discuss the whip count and strategize on what to do next. That meeting was interrupted as the nominee to lead Biden’s budget office yanked her name from consideration, and multiple Democrats said Wednesday that immigration issues remained unresolved.
Proponents of the Biden bill, meanwhile, are still furiously working the phones to get their colleagues on board. That group, led by California Reps. Linda Sánchez, Judy Chu and Zoe Lofgren, has also lined up meetings with influential groups across the caucus, including the Blue Dogs on Tuesday and progressives on Thursday. Sánchez and Lofgren, along with other top Democrats, also spoke to the New Democrat Coalition late last month.
One of the White House’s leading officials on immigration, Tyler Moran, will also hold a staff briefing on the bill on Friday.
It’s unclear if or when Biden’s bill will come to the floor after moving through the Judiciary Committee in April. But several Democrats have been privately pushing leadership to make a decision one way or the other, privately expressing frustration that top Democrats were still projecting the possibility of the massive bill coming to the floor in March.
In recent days, Democratic leaders have publicly sounded a note of skepticism, while acknowledging the final push behind the scenes.
“If ready, we will also consider comprehensive immigration reform,” Hoyer told reporters this week as he ticked off the upcoming floor schedule. “But I stress, if ready. There’s a lot of discussion going on about that.”
Democrats were already planning to take up some of their most popular immigration proposals in the coming weeks — one to protect the undocumented population known as Dreamers and another to reform the system for farmworkers. Both have bipartisan support, including strong backing from the CHC and CPC, and could soon see floor votes in the Senate.
But some members of the CHC say those bills aren’t enough because they don’t go nearly as far as Biden’s plan.
“I want to make sure the broader bill gets as much support as possible, and that we send it over as quickly as possible, and that we get this done,” said Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who helped shape Biden’s proposal and has been actively lobbying her colleagues on the bill.
“My fear, always, is that we will get morsels and, as a Congress, continue to kick the can down the road,” she said.
As Democrats move quickly toward a piecemeal immigration strategy, some corners of their caucus have begun to seek changes to the Biden plan. Some moderates, for instance, are pushing to include a provision requiring employers to confirm workers’ legal status — known as e-verify. Progressives, meanwhile, want some tweaks to ensure the bill doesn’t disqualify people from citizenship because of minor infractions on their criminal record.
It’s not clear yet which changes might be made to the bill. The Biden administration has repeatedly expressed a willingness to consider more tailored immigration measures that Democrats can get to the president’s desk. A White House official said the administration was in “regular touch” with lawmakers on immigration reform and would continue to hold briefings on Biden’s immigration priorities as Congress considers proposals.
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a swing-district Democrat, has been making the case to Biden’s Hill team that an e-verify provision should be part of the bill, just as it was in the bipartisan immigration bill in 2013 that fell just short of passage.
“Yes, I support what’s in the bill. I think we would be in a stronger position to get it enacted if we eventually ended up where, I think, the middle ground is,” Malinowski said. “I think for both solid political, practical reasons and moral reasons, those two things should go together.”
The biggest fear for many progressives, however, is what could happen to the bill to win over the party’s centrists, either in the House or when the bill crosses over to the Senate.
“We don’t want this bill to be watered down before it gets to the floor, which is sometimes what happens with immigration bills,” Jayapal said.
Immigration advocates have argued that failing to act on the issue could come back to haunt them politically, leaving Democrats vulnerable among their base in 2022.
During a session at the House Democratic Caucus’s virtual retreat on Wednesday, advocates shared new polling conducted for the immigrant rights groups FWD.us and America’s Voice, which showed that 63 percent of voters would be “upset” if protections for undocumented immigrants didn’t pass. The online survey of 1,200 voters who participated in the 2020 election was conducted Feb. 20-26.
A clean Dream Act proposal received the highest support nationally with 72 percent of voters supporting it compared to 71 percent support for a bill providing citizenship to undocumented farmworkers and 66 percent support for citizenship for undocumented essential workers. The latter is a proposal that has been pushed by Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) alongside Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Alex Padilla (D-Calif.).
“Voters will be upset over inaction, especially the voters Democrats need to show up in the midterm elections,” stated the polling memo shared with House Democrats and obtained by POLITICO. “Republicans will not receive all or even most of the blame should the efforts to pass citizenship bills fail.”