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Commentary: Is the GOP about to pass an immigration amnesty?

To deal or not to deal, that is the question facing Speaker Paul Ryan and the House GOP on Thursday when it comes to immigration. If House Republican leaders push through a deal for DACA (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals) that appears to be an amnesty, it may drive away base voters that they desperately need to have any chance of holding the House in November.

But if Ryan and Co. can't come up with a deal, some 25 or so Republican may join with the Democrats to push through a discharge petition that puts an actual amnesty in play. And that could be a disaster for Republicans.

For his part, Speaker Ryan says "I really do believe there's a sweet spot here," one that takes care of the "Dreamers" without driving away the GOP base. Majority leader Steve Scalise says "there's a narrow way to thread this needle."

But if there is, why hasn't it already been threaded in the past seven months? 

The obstacle isn't letting some one million or so illegal immigrants who came to America as children remain here today. Most hard-core border-security activists agree that it's extremely unlikely they've ever be deported under any circumstances. The problem is the unknown number of illegal immigrants who will come to the country tomorrow once a DACA deal is made.

"Every time you talk about some sort of benefit, whether it's amnesty or DACA, it increases illegal crossings," according to Thomas D. Homan, acting director of the U. S Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. "It's been proven the last three decades I've been around." Homan said on Tuesday that passing a "clean" DACA deal—simply letting these people stay without stepping up immigration enforcement—will spur still more people to enter the US illegally.

"If you don't fix the underlying problem, the families crossing the border today will be your DACA families ten years from now," Homan said.

But Republicans in districts with relatively large Hispanic populations, or in districts carried by Hilary Clinton, aren't thinking long term. They're thinking "How do I win this November?" Led by people like California Rep. Jeff Denham, a group of moderate Republicans are pushing a procedural effort to force a vote on a DACA deal using a discharge petition—essentially doing an end run around the House GOP leadership. The petition needs 218 signatures and as of the end of the day Wednesday it has 215—including 23 Republicans and every Democrat except Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar.

Regardless of how they feel about a DACA deal, the House Republican leadership isn't thrilled by the idea of having Democrats and a handful of GOP members force a bill onto the floor for a vote. The majority always argues against such petitions, no matter which party is in power, by asking "Why would we hand control over to the minority?" It's a sign of just how concerned these moderate Republicans are about their midterm prospects that they're willing to go to such extreme lengths.

How extreme? According to former staff director of the House Rules Committee Don Wolfensberger, of the 321 discharge petitions filed in the House since 1967, only seven have actually been called up for a vote.

This time may be different. Sources close to the negotiations say that there are enough Republicans standing by to send the petition to the floor if Ryan and Co. can't cut a deal. If that happens, the voters who backed Donald Trump and his wall are not going to be happy.

"This is the most idiotic way to make laws that anyone can imagine," says Jessica Vaughan of Center for Immigration Studies, which favors more immigration restrictions. "A rogue group of Republicans is siding with the united Democrats to pass a big amnesty that most of their fellow Republicans, not to mention Republican voters, are dead set against – just a few months before an election."

Vaughan and other border-security advocates fear that, in order to prevent the discharge petition from going forward, Speaker Ryan will propose a compromise deal that looks a lot like amnesty and comes with very little enforcement. On the other hand, if the discharge petition does go through, the rules in place would likely make the final bill the "clean DACA" Democrats want—another fiasco for the GOP. 

In the end, this entire debate may be moot. President Trump is very unlikely to sign away the DACA issue without a deal for his wall. He's likely to veto any such deal, assuming it could get through the Senate.

Then again, this also opens the door for the obvious deal Washington's been talking about for months -- a "DACA for The Wall" agreement where President Trump gets money for a real, physical structure at the border and Democrats get their DACA amnesty. And border-security activists—who are much more interested in enforcement policies like mandating E-Verity for employers and shutting down the visa lottery than they are a wall—get, well, not much.

"The only thing that seems certain is that there will be a big amnesty, and Republicans will get blamed by everyone. They will get blamed by the more-migration side for not legalizing enough people, and they will get blamed by the pro-borders side for giving away the amnesty without offsetting enforcement or visa cuts.  In the end it will be a big win for Democrats, Dreamers, and donors," says Vaughan.  

But with Republicans ready to jump ship and join the Democrats, this awful deal may be the only deal.

  • Michael Graham

    CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.