By Susan Cornwell and Amanda Becker
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republicans in the U.S. Congress on Thursday struggled to agree on immigration legislation that could be voted on before November’s congressional elections, as party members disagreed on key issues such as the future of illegal “Dreamer” immigrants.
House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan convened the closed-door meeting for 235 Republican members, presenting a series of options but no firm proposals, according to lawmakers who attended.
At a news conference following the meeting, Ryan said the next step is to “put pen to paper” to get legislation before the full House. He provided no timeline.
Ryan provided no timeline. But some centrist Republicans did, as they continued to press – against Ryan’s will – a rare procedure to force House votes on immigration legislation, including a bill mainly supported by Democrats.
Representative Jeff Denham, the leader of the rebellion, said that unless leadership produces a new immigration bill by Tuesday, he will put a “discharge petition” in motion. “We will absolutely have all 218 (signatures needed) and probably a lot more than that,” Denham told reporters.
Some of these centrists represent congressional districts with large Hispanic populations that want Dreamer protections cemented into law.
Meantime, Ryan continued searching for a bill that most of his fellow Republicans could instead get behind.
“Nothing was hammered out today,” said Representative Peter King. Representative Mark Meadows, who chairs an influential group of hard-right Republicans called the Freedom Caucus, said, “There is not consensus.” Difficult issues included which Dreamers would qualify for protections and whether they eventually could become U.S. citizens, lawmakers said.
Many lawmakers lobbied Ryan for their pet proposals. Representative Dana Rohrabacher even pushed his bill to create a new visa for immigrants who would pay a $1 million fee for entry, which he said would finance Republican President Donald Trump’s desired border wall.
White House legislative liaison Marc Short told reporters: “I think it will be a week or so until you see final text on a bill.”
But he said the starting point is the immigration principles laid out by Trump early this year: aggressive immigration security, including the construction of a wall along the Southwest border with Mexico, and a clamp-down on allowing family members abroad from joining relatives living legally in the United States.
The Senate in February soundly rejected such a tough immigration bill.
A push by House Republicans for immigration legislation stems from Trump’s decision to end an Obama-era program protecting from deportation hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who were brought into the United States illegally when they were children, commonly known as “Dreamers.”
The future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is now caught up in court.
As Thursday’s meeting wound down after more than two hours, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a strongly worded statement that could complicate Ryan’s efforts.
Reacting to a just-released Departments of Justice and Homeland Security report finding that one in five people in federal prisons are “known or suspected aliens,” Sessions said in a statement: “It is outrageous that tens of thousands of Americans are dying every year because of the drugs and violence brought over our borders illegally.”
Representative John Carter, a Republican who has been a central figure in past, failed immigration battles, was asked by Reuters about Ryan’s prospects for success now.
“Same song, third verse,” Carter grumbled, adding that he remained silent during the closed-door squabbling. “I’m trying to keep my blood pressure down.”