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What the Republican discharge petition means for DACA, ‘Dreamers’

Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde May 23, 2018

Republican lawmakers are taking an unconventional route to address the future of so-called "Dreamers," immigrants who came to the United States illegally when they were children.

Reps. Will Hurd of Texas, Jeff Denham, Calif., and Carlos Curbelo, Fla., are leading efforts to get the majority of House members to sign a "discharge petition" — a move to circumvent Republican leadership and bring four different immigration proposals to the House floor as early as June 25.

Their goal is to find a lasting solution for Dreamers who have benefitted from Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the Obama-era program protecting some young immigrants from deportation. President Donald Trump’s administration considers DACA unconstitutional and is fighting in court to get rid of it, though Trump at times has expressed a more lenient stance to keep Dreamers in the United States.

Democrats have called out House Speaker Paul Ryan for stonewalling votes on DACA-related proposals, and Republicans are now also speaking out against inaction.

"This institution should be driven by courage, not by cowardice, and the goal should not be to suppress members from pursuing their legislative goals, it should be to empower each member, and that's what we're trying to do," Curbelo said in a May 9 CNN interview, adding that the discharge petition was "not in defiance of anyone."

Ryan voiced his disagreement on May 16, telling reporters discharge petitions are "a big mistake."

"They disunify our majority," he said.

Ryan said he didn’t want to advance a proposal that might be vetoed. Asked if he had an alternative, Ryan said, "we’re working on it."

So, what does this all mean and how does it impact Dreamers?

Here’s an overview of the uncommon approach of discharge petitions, what it means for Dreamers, and what it says about the power dynamic in congress.

What is a discharge petition?

In essence, it’s a motion made in writing to pull a bill or resolution out of a committee and get it to the House floor.

(Ordinarily, the measure gets to the floor after a committee vote and referral. And the speaker of the House and the majority leader decide what reaches the floor and when.)

This tactic is also used to help move legislation that has been stalled in the House Rules Committee. Republicans are specifically seeking to discharge the Rules Committee from a resolution that allows the consideration of four immigration proposals.

If a discharge petition is signed by 218 members, eventually, after a series of specific steps and timetables, a targeted measure can be debated and voted on the floor.

Ultimately, a successful discharge petition allows a majority of the House to bypass leadership and put measures on the floor.

How common is it to get 218 lawmakers to sign a discharge petition?

Since 1935, 25 discharge petitions have received 218 signatures, said Josh Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.

"It is extremely rare for it to occur," he said.

The latest one was in 2015, when House lawmakers discharged legislation to revive the U.S. Export-Import Bank, an export-finance agency that had closed after its charter expired.

"Party leaders don’t like this happening," Huder said. "One of the things a party likes to do is maintain control over the House agenda."

What does this discharge petition mean for Dreamers?

The Republican effort would discharge a special rule and ultimately set up votes on four immigration measures, including one to protect Dreamers and another to cut legal immigration, Binder explained in an analysis published May 10 in the Washington Post.

"The House would vote on the four proposals using a ‘queen of the Hill’ rule, meaning that the proposal that received the most votes beyond a majority would pass the House," Binder wrote.

Among the four proposals that would be considered is one of Ryan’s choosing, and another one modeled after a bill introduced earlier this year by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., (and supported by President Donald Trump) to authorize construction of a border wall and allow DACA beneficiaries to get a 3-year renewable nonimmigrant status. (People who come to the United States on a temporary basis have this status.)

Two other proposals would give Dreamers a chance to stay in the United States permanently; one of the two would include border security.

How likely is it that this will lead to a legislative solution for Dreamers?

Securing 218 signatures for a discharge petition does not guarantee that a favorable proposal will pass the House, Senate, or become law, experts said.

House majority action on a discharge petition has no favorable impact on Senate majorities, said Donald Wolfensberger, former staff director of the House Rules Committee and current fellow at the Wilson Center and the Bipartisan Policy Center.

"If the Senate majority leadership is of the same party as the House majority leadership, chances are it will oppose any consideration of the measure," Wolfensberger said.

Bipartisan senators have met with Trump and put forth proposals to benefit Dreamers, but their measures failed to get the necessary 60 votes to pass.

Even if the discharge petition gets 218 signatures, the Dreamers’ future remains uncertain.

What does the discharge petition process say about the power dynamics in Congress?

Most discharge petitions come from the minority party to illustrate what they would do if they were in charge of the floor agenda, said Gregory Koger, a political science professor at the University of Miami.

The process is much more complicated and costly for members of the majority party, Koger said. A House speaker will try to work with his or her party to prevent members from signing the petition, possibly bringing up something for debate on the House floor that will be in the best interest of the party, Koger said.

"If you are a Democrat from California, what do you care if Paul Ryan doesn’t like you?" Koger said. "The main reason why majority party members may be reluctant to challenge the speaker is because it will affect the overall reputation of the party."

Media reports have highlighted that some Republicans are fed up with their own leader, Koger noted.

While it is rare for a member of the majority party to lead a discharge effort, it is not unprecedented, Wolfensberger said.

How many lawmakers so far have signed the discharge petition?

203, as of May 22.


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Says a discharge petition on DACA and immigration "is not in defiance of anyone."
in a CNN interview
Wednesday, May 9, 2018
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Our Sources

PolitiFact, Trump-O-Meter: Terminate Barack Obama's immigration executive orders 'immediately', last updated April 25, 2018

The Hill, Dem leaders pile on, press Ryan for DACA commitment, Feb. 7, 2018

CNN, Republicans seek enough signatures to force DACA vote in House, May 9, 2018, Motion to Discharge Committee

Phone interview, Josh Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, May 21, 2018

The Wall Street Journal, House Votes to Begin Debate on Reviving Export-Import Bank, Oct. 26, 2015

The Washington Post, Some moderate Republicans are trying to force a House vote on DACA. Here’s what that means., May 10, 2018

Bloomberg, Ryan Under Pressure From Both Sides of GOP Over Immigration, May 16, 2018, H.R.4760 - Securing America's Future Act of 2018, introduced Jan. 10, 2018, H.R.4796 - USA Act of 2018, introduced Jan. 16, 2018

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard website, Rep. Roybal-Allard Speech on Effort to Bring Her Dream Act to House Floor, Sept. 27, 2017

Email interview, Donald Wolfensberger, former staff director of the House Rules Committee and current fellow at the Wilson Center and the Bipartisan Policy Center, May 21, 2018

PolitiFact, Are Democrats 'nowhere to be found on DACA,' as Donald Trump claimed?, March 7, 2018

Phone interview, Gregory Koger, a political science professor at the University of Miami, May 21, 2018

Email interview, Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, May 22, 2018, Motion to Discharge a Committee from the Consideration of a Resolution, last reviewed May 23, 2018, 9:30 a.m. EST.

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What the Republican discharge petition means for DACA, ‘Dreamers’