Fate of effort by GOP moderates to force immigration votes hinges on new draft proposal

Moderates are waiting to view text for potential compromise legislation that could lead to a path for citizenship for DACA recipients.

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By Rebecca Shabad, Leigh Ann Caldwell, Marianna Sotomayor and Alex Moe

WASHINGTON — Republican moderates in the House who have been trying to force a vote on immigration proposals were in a holding pattern Thursday as they weighed a new option offered by conservatives the day before.

Following a two-hour closed-door meeting with the House Republican Conference on Thursday morning, Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, a sponsor of the discharge petition to force immigration votes, said three members whose support is needed for the procedure to move forward were holding out.

Those members were waiting to view text for potential compromise legislation that could incorporate a conservative suggestion for a new visa system that could lead to a path for citizenship.

“I think the Republicans who have conveyed to us privately that they’re willing to sign really want to give these negotiations a chance," Curbelo told NBC News. "Now, having said that, one or two could move to sign anyway."

With a path to citizenship and the DACA program still the sticking points, two sources familiar with negotiations told NBC on Thursday that a conservative who has been involved in the meetings of conservatives, moderates and leadership offered a new way to gain citizenship on Wednesday, with one source naming Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, as that member. (Todd Winer, a spokesperson for Labrador, told NBC News “that didn’t happen.”)

The sources said the conservative proposal included a new visa system for participants in the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and/or those eligible for DACA that would lead to a path to citizenship, which was described as a process that would create a “bridge” into the legal immigration system. The Freedom Caucus and other conservatives have been saying they want a “bridge” and not “special” treatment, and have generally been opposed to a path to citizenship.

While moderates are willing to accept the member's offer, the lack of trust surrounding the talks has many of those members waiting to see the proposal in writing. The Freedom Caucus was to meet Thursday afternoon to discuss the situation.

“I don’t think you can have any agreement until you see it in writing. But we had a productive conversation and that conversation extended to our entire conference this morning," Rep Jeff Denham, R-Calif., said. "Now it’s a matter of putting on paper and seeing if we actually have an agreement.”

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Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Thursday that negotiators will now see if they can produce draft legislation even though the critical meeting earlier in the day produced no deal that satisfied both moderates and conservatives.

“They're going to start drafting legislation,” Curbelo said. “So I think very soon, here in the coming days, we will have text that we can work from, and that's when we'll really know if there's a way forward."

While the petition is “not necessarily on hold,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., its backers may not need it in the end if negotiations lead to an agreement.

“I mean, the reality is, signatures are there," he said. "And if we can have an agreement moving forward, that doesn’t mean everybody’s going to love it, right, or anyone of us are going to love it, but then there’s no need for discharge petition."

On the other hand, Diaz-Balart added, "if the conversation were to go nowhere, then that’s the only option.”

Moderates had been focused on meeting a Tuesday deadline to get 218 signatures for the petition, which would allow them to force the immigration votes on June 25. If they want to wait to see draft legislation, that could delay the petition until July, just weeks before the House is scheduled to go on a month-long August recess.

Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., expressed frustration Thursday with leadership, who he suggested called their powwow a family meeting.

“I feel like a family with a small ‘f.' That’s as nice as I could put it,” said Amodei, who has signed the petition. He pointed to some of his colleagues’ “ignorance” of the fact that members could offer amendments to the petition before it reaches the floor in the Rules Committee.

“So to somehow say that this is somehow ceding control of the floor to Nancy Pelosi, I believe to be an inaccurate statement based on meeting with the parliamentarian,” Amodei said.

Leadership outlined President Donald Trump’s four pillars on immigration with “tweaks,” said White House legislative adviser Marc Short, who made the Pelosi comment, saying that turning the House floor over to the minority leader was "not ideal for us in advancing our agenda."

Leaders showed 11 slides at the meeting, details of which were obtained by NBC, that outlined the president’s four pillars including border security, eliminating the diversity lottery, paring down family members eligible to come to the U.S. and providing a pathway to citizenship for potential participants in the DACA program, covering about 1.8 million people. One slide said e-verify, agriculture guest worker reform, other guest worker reforms and temporary protected status would not be included in negotiations.

The biggest sticking point among the major factions of the conference remains the citizenship issue.

“The hardest part of this is what is the definition for what is a special pathway [to citizenship] and does that include other children of other people that have come [to the U.S.],” said Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, the chairman of the Republican Study Group.

Rep. Thomas Massie, a conservative Republican from Kentucky, joked after the meeting Thursday that the ongoing talks over immigration might be going on too long.

“I say this in jest: If I could get another person to walk out of here and sign the discharge petition, we can end this meeting right now,” Massie said. But seriously, he added, “at some point it might be better to have some votes.”

CORRECTION (June 7, 2018, 5:45 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated that Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., is a member of the House Freedom Caucus. He has not joined that caucus.

Garrett Haake contributed.