Farm bill fail raises questions about lame-duck House speaker, GOP cohesion
The House Republican leadership has promised a vote on immigration after multiple factions in the party used the issue to derail a vote on the $867 billion farm bill last week.
The offer is certain to win over some of the 30 Republicans who voted against the bill. But the last-minute play to force an immigration vote at the expense of the farm bill left many Republicans sore. It also raised questions about whether lame-duck House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., can hold together an already unruly caucus after announcing his retirement last month.
Ryan shot down rumors of an early Republican leadership election during a Tuesday press conference saying the conference does not need "a divisive leadership election" disrupting their agenda.
"The members drafted me into this job because of who I am and what I stand for," Ryan told reporters. "Obviously I serve at the pleasure of the members, but I think we all agree the best thing for us is to complete our agenda and not wedge into the middle of the completion of our agenda a divisive leadership elections."
Over the weekend, reports emerged suggesting the Republican's failure to pass the farm bill was a symptom of a larger leadership problem that started after Speaker Ryan's April retirement announcement.
Politico reported some GOP lawmakers were openly questioning whether Ryan could impose the kind of discipline needed to pass the GOP agenda with one foot out the door. The outlet quoted a senior Republican lawmaker, who suggested Ryan should leave before the November midterms, saying, "It became clear on Friday that it’s time to let go."
White House budget director Mick Mulvaney further fueled rumors of an early departure for Ryan at a conference on Sunday, hosted by the Weekly Standard.
Mulvaney suggested Ryan should step down before the November elections, a move that would trigger a congressional leadership race for both parties. Mulvaney said, and Democrats would be forced to "put up or shut up," Mulvaney said, and vote for or against the polarizing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Calif.
The move, which would see House Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. take over for Ryan, allegedly has support in the White House, the Weekly Standard reported.
On Tuesday, McCarthy fired back, saying the reports were not true. "You're building something into a farm bill ... that's not out there," he told reporters.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California called reports of chaos in the GOP leadership "fake news," insisting members of the conference are working through their differences.
At least part of the disarray, seen in the House vote on the farm bill, was caused by Paul Ryan announcing his retirement almost a year before leaving office, explained Mark Harkins, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Government Affairs Institute.
"It is extraordinarily rare, I think, for a speaker to announce their retirement 8 months before the end of their power and I think we're seeing why," he said. "Once you're a lame duck, nobody fears you."
By announcing his departure, Ryan lost the ability to threaten farm bill dissenters with future consequences or hold the line with other rogue factions in the caucus.
"Once you no longer have the power of the speakership moving forward, all you have to offer are carrots, you have no stick," Harkins said.
At least two factions within the Republican Party may have demonstrated on Friday that they have little to fear and much to gain in breaking from leadership.
Hours before the farm bill came to the floor, a group of conservative Freedom Caucus members threatened to block its passage unless the GOP leadership scheduled a vote on a tough border security and immigration bill sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul of Texas. Goodlatte-McCaul is the one immigration proposal in the House that has President Donald Trump's support.
Their dissent combined with more than a dozen moderate Republicans also seeking an immigration vote, sank the bill. The moderates drafted a petition to force a floor vote on at least four different immigration bills dealing with border security and protections for Dreamers, the children of undocumented immigrants protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or DACA.
The so-called discharge petition needs 218 signers to trigger a floor vote. As of Monday afternoon, 20 Republicans and 176 Democrats had signed.
Many of the Republicans pushing for an immigration vote actually supported the content of the farm bill. In the end, however, they joined the entire Democratic caucus, which opposed the farm's bill's work requirements for food stamp recipients.
"Obviously, last Friday was regretful. Obviously, we did not want to see members take down the farm bill," Speaker Ryan told reporters on Tuesday. "It's going to be a messy process at times. That's the way this system works."
Republican Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, who represents a farming district in Missouri, lamented his colleagues' decision to revolt over an unrelated immigration issue.
"While the leadership had promised them a vote a week after we had come back from an earlier recess, that wasn’t good enough. And so they decided to throw a little fit and as a result, brought the farm bill down," he told KRCG 13 News.
According to reports, the Republican leadership has agreed to the demands of the conservative Freedom Caucus and scheduled a vote on the Goodlatte-McCaul immigration bill in late June. At that time, the House will also reconsider the farm bill.
The immigration bill protects DACA recipients, increases border security and border wall funding, and limits legal migration. It has no Democratic support in the House and an identical bill was rejected by the Senate earlier this year.
This concession does little to address the demands of the moderates who will continue pushing for 218 signatures on their discharge petition and the chance to debate multiple proposals.
California Rep. Jeff Denham, one of the lead sponsors of the petition told reporters he believes he has the support to get immigration to the floor. "We're going to continue to roll out more Republicans this week," he said.
This will mean more heartburn for Speaker Ryan, as members of his own party revert to a tactic typically used by the minority. "Obviously leadership doesn't want a discharge petition," Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho told reporters after a closed-door conference meeting on Tuesday. "No leadership does."
Ryan criticized the discharge petition Tuesday arguing it won't produce a result that President Trump will sign into law. "I can guarantee you a discharge petition will not make law. So what's the point?" he asked.
After the Senate failed to advance immigration legislation in February, the House leadership hoped to avoid tackling the issue before the November midterms.
"The Republican leadership has shown a reluctance to put forward any kind of immigration legislation on the House floor for fear that would actually divide the caucus in a worse way," Harkins explained.
Now that at least one immigration vote is inevitable, time will tell whether the GOP leadership's concerns about further dividing an already fractious caucus were justified.
"There's no way out of this standard conundrum on other issues," Harkins said, describing the careful balance the leadership has to strike between the party's moderate wing and ideological die-hards.
"Looking forward to January 2019, this isn't going to get easier for the Republicans," he continued. "And oh, by the way, the Democrats have this problem as well."