Tactic could revive immigration overhaul in the House

Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, accused House Republicans of trying to “sweep this issue [of overhauling immigration laws] under the rug.”
Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, accused House Republicans of trying to “sweep this issue [of overhauling immigration laws] under the rug.”

WASHINGTON — Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., offered a long-shot option Thursday to revive the moribund effort to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws that would require the support of more than a dozen House Republicans — and, if nothing else, pressure others to act on an election-year issue that Tea Party-aligned members strongly oppose.

The legislative maneuver, known as a discharge petition, would allow supporters of overhauling the nation’s immigration laws to circumvent the Republican majority in the House by bringing the measure directly to the House floor, bypassing the regular committee process. It is a rarely successful tactic, though it was used in 2002 to eventually win passage of a major campaign finance law.

Schumer, who was one of the architects of a broad-based rewriting of immigration laws that passed the Senate in June, accused House Republicans of trying to “sweep this issue under the rug,” and added, “In the next few months you’re going to see increased pressure, and the discharge petition is one such way.”


Lawmakers and aides in both parties say that a discharge petition, especially one coming from Schumer, whose views are strongly opposed by many House conservatives, is unlikely to succeed. Even if all House Democrats supported the measure, it would still require more than a dozen Republican signatures.

Get This Week in Politics in your inbox:
A weekly recap of the top political stories from The Globe, sent right to your email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“This scheme has zero chance of success. A clear majority in the House understands that the massive Senate-passed bill is deeply flawed,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner. “That’s why we will continue to work on step-by-step, common-sense reform.”

Boehner, who had offered a set of principles to his caucus to try to advance immigration legislation at a recent retreat, all but conceded a week later that the measure was dead this year.

The Senate bill included a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country, and House Republicans have largely dismissed it as “amnesty.” They prefer to take on the issue in a piecemeal approach through a series of narrower bills.

But Schumer’s strategy accomplishes an important goal of Democrats and immigration advocates: It keeps the pressure on Boehner and his fellow Republicans to move forward on at least some sort of an immigration overhaul, and serves as a cudgel for Democrats, especially looking toward the 2016 presidential elections.


Even those who would support the discharge petition, or at least the idea of passing broad immigration legislation, privately acknowledge it is more about a tactical political advantage than a viable legislative option.

“Discharge petitions are difficult, but when they work, it’s because there’s a clear majority of the body that supports a specific proposal, and in this case, that is true,” Schumer said. “But I have no illusions that this will be easy in any way.”

J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who was speaker the last time a discharge petition succeeded, was critical of the tactic.

“I have always been an advocate of regular order,” Hastert said. “Discharges, I believe, lead to poor results.”

Coming on the heels of a “clean” debt ceiling vote this week, which Boehner put on the House floor on Tuesday knowing it would pass only with a majority of Democratic votes, Schumer’s suggestion also serves as a test of just how far Boehner is willing to push his conference and buck outside conservative activists. Boehner has already, six times in the past 14 months, violated the unofficial House Republican credo that legislation should pass the House only with a majority of the majority, and a discharge could potentially provide him the opportunity to do so on immigration.


Yet that option remains highly unlikely. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., a supporter of moving forward on immigration, said a discharge petition has “zero” chance of accumulating the Republican signatures it would need. Even Republicans like him, who favor action, would not sign on to a petition requesting consideration of the Senate-passed bill, because they do not support it on policy grounds.

During the 16-day government shutdown in October, Democrats circulated a discharge petition to reopen the government — a maneuver that was seen as far more urgent and, in theory, had far more support. But Republicans refused to sign, said Dent, who led the House Republicans trying to end the shutdown.

Now, the same Republicans who support action on immigration would not betray Boehner.

“It means you’re putting a thumb in the eye of the speaker, not just in this issue but any issue,” Dent said. “You’re essentially handing control of the floor to the minority party.”

The speaker’s decision this week to put a debt ceiling increase to a vote without preconditions was meant to get past a divisive issue so Republicans could regain their focus on the issues that unite them, especially opposition to President Barack Obama’s health care law.

It was “pulling the bandage from the scab and doing it fast,” Dent said, adding that Republicans were not about to do the same thing with immigration anytime soon.

“Could you get a couple” of votes?, he said. “Perhaps, but not many.”

Even Democratic lawmakers and aides eager to see an immigration overhaul before the end of the year privately say that the path forward is still through Boehner; they are hoping that now that the potential debt ceiling crisis is out of the way, the House Republican leadership will return to the question of immigration once the mood has mellowed slightly.

Schumer was responding to a recent column in The Washington Post by E.J. Dionne Jr., suggesting that Democrats go the route of the discharge petition. He also suggested during a “Meet the Press” appearance Sunday that Congress could pass immigration legislation this year, but delay its implementation until 2017, to assuage the concern of many Republicans who say they do not trust Obama to enforce the laws.

White House officials declined to comment Thursday on Schumer’s proposal. In recent weeks, aides to Obama have sought to give Boehner room to deal with his caucus in the hopes that he could find a way around the most conservative voices there. Officials said Thursday that the president had offered a set of principles for an immigration overhaul and that they remained hopeful that Congress would act soon on legislation meeting those principles.