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House conservatives demand immigration vote, threaten to sink farm bill

A block of conservative House Republicans is threatening to sink the farm bill unless the leadership first agrees to hold a vote on immigration legislation.

Following a meeting of the House Freedom Caucus Thursday afternoon, the group's chairman, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-South Carolina, said that he was not able to convince any of his members to switch from a 'no' vote to a 'yes' vote on the giant agriculture and food bill that the leadership hoped to bring to the floor for a vote Friday. He said he relayed that in a phone call to GOP Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana.

"For us, immigration and farm bill go together. It is critically important to our farmers, it is critical important to our ag-timber industry and more importantly it's critically important to every American that we finally get something and address this problem," Meadows told reporters. "We believe a vote on immigration would be critical to get done before the farm bill."

The bill they would like brought to the floor was authored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia. It includes a legislative renewal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, adds more border security and a border wall, ends the diversity lottery and visas for family members other than spouses and minor children, cracks down on sanctuary cities, and makes e-verify mandatory for businesses.

Meadows added that while he did not have a formal whip count, he believes that enough members of the Freedom Caucus are planning to vote no that the farm bill will not pass. The bill is not expected to garner any support from Democrats because they oppose the additional work requirements it places on food-stamp recipients.

The group is pushing for an immigration vote because the farm bill is one of the last pieces of must-pass legislation the House will tackle between now and a spending bill at the end of September. The farm bill also does not expire until September, so Meadows argued there is no need to pass it this Friday.

A leadership aide said that discussions are ongoing but as of now there are no plans to change the plan to vote on the farm bill Friday.

The House Freedom Caucus is not the lone group pushing for an immigration vote. A group of moderates have been signing a petition to force a vote on four separate immigration bills: the Goodlatte bill, a version of the DREAM Act, bipartisan immigration that protects DACA recipients and enhances border security (the USA Act), and a bill to be offered by Speaker Ryan.

GOP Reps. Carlos Curbelo, Jeff Denham and Will Hurd, three original cosponsors of the bipartisan USA Act, filed a procedural measure known as a discharge petition last week. If 218 of his colleagues sign it, there would be votes on all four immigration bills with the highest vote-getter proceeding to the Senate.

The House leadership has worked to quash the discharge petition, arguing that it turns the floor over to Democrats and that President Trump might not sign the final product anyway.

"We are working in earnest with our members to try and address all of their concerns about immigration reforms," Ryan told reporters Thursday. "The question is can we get legislation to the floor that has a chance of making it into law. I think it is futile to bring a discharge through that would guarantee nothing goes into law."

Forty-nine lawmakers, including 20 Republicans, had signed the petition as of Thursday afternoon. Denham believes he has at least five more Republicans who will join the effort, which would get the sponsors to the 218 vote threshold if all Democrats sign on.

He also told reporters Thursday that he is working with Meadows on another option that might be narrower than the broad Goodlatte bill.

"We have said for years we would not do a comprehensive bill. The Goodlatte bill is not only comprehensive, but it is an extension of President Obama's executive order so we are now having a discussion about the principles that the president has put out and which ones can actually get bipartisan support," he said. "It's my belief that we need a narrow bill with a permanent fix for dreamers and border security."

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    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.