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Rep. Erik Paulsen is the picture of a loyal Republican in the House. So why has he joined the revolt on immigration policy?

Paulsen is backing a move that would force a vote in the House on immigration policy, over the objections of Speaker Paul Ryan and Republican leadership.

The discharge petition would lead to a vote on the DREAM Act, as well as three other measures on immigration.
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Erik Paulsen, the Republican representative of the 3rd Congressional District, is about as risk-averse a congressman you’ll find on Capitol Hill. He’s a carefully measured speaker, and shies away from controversial issues in favor of parochial concerns. When big votes do come up, he frequently casts his ballot in accordance with wishes of GOP leadership.

Last week, however, Paulsen offered his support to something that Speaker Paul Ryan wishes would just go away: the push to secure a lasting solution for the young, undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, whose legal status in the U.S. was terminated by President Donald Trump last September.

Paulsen joined a group of 23 House Republicans, most of them centrists or top targets for Democrats in this fall’s midterm elections, who have signed on to what’s called a “discharge petition,” a parliamentary maneuver that requires a simple majority of the House to force a vote on legislation.

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They’ve resorted to this tactic because, to this point, Ryan and his lieutenants have refused to hold votes on immigration. With the elections approaching, and with the potential for the Dreamers’ plight to spark outrage in swing districts, these House Republicans see in the petition an opportunity to buck their critics and work with Democrats to advance legislation providing a solution for the Dreamers — and possibly a boost to their chances in November.

But it’s the thinking of GOP brass that votes on immigration, even if they may help a few individual members, could sink the party’s chances to hold their House majority: top leaders believe that even the perception that Republicans are caving to Democrats and moderates on immigration would dampen enthusiasm in the pro-Trump base, giving key voters a reason to stay home on Election Day.

A rare weapon

Paulsen’s statement on joining the discharge petition, which he did on May 23, was short and to the point: “President Trump and leaders in Congress promised to fix DACA. They haven’t,” he said. “I took action to solve this problem and there’s bipartisan support to do so.”

The discharge petition is a seldom-used maneuver to force a vote on legislation. It’s named that way because the petition “discharges” a piece of legislation from the relevant committee’s jurisdiction, allowing it to come directly to the House floor for consideration.

For that to happen, a majority of House members need to sign on, which is a big reason why the strategy isn’t much used: it requires at least some of the members of the majority party to agitate for a vote on something that, for whatever reason, their own party leaders haven’t taken up.

The petition aims to bring to the House floor four proposals related to immigration: one is the DREAM Act, which failed to pass Congress in 2010 and is considered the gold standard for Dreamers, as it proposes to provide a path to citizenship for recipients of DACA without any trade-offs for border security desired by Trump and many Republicans.

Another is the so-called USA Act, which provides legal status for Dreamers, along with more money for border security — but not Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico. A third bill, sponsored by the House Judiciary Committee chair, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, grants temporary status to DACA recipients while imposing new restrictions on legal immigration, and it’s the favored bill of House conservatives. (A fourth bill would be left to Speaker Ryan to introduce.)

The discharge petition would put these four bills to the floor under the so-called “queen of the Hill” rule — meaning that the proposal that got the most votes would advance out of the chamber, assuming more than one bill had the support of a majority.

The discharge petition, though rare, has a track record of paving a path to legislative success: in 2002, a petition got a sweeping campaign finance reform bill, widely known now as the McCain-Feingold Act, off the ground in the House. They can also be vessels for mutiny: in 2015, conservative insurgent Rep. Mark Meadows tried to oust then-Speaker John Boehner with a discharge petition, but he did not get enough signatures.

But this latest discharge petition is hardly a hail mary: joining Paulsen in signing on are 22 Republicans. Some, like retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, are well-known moderates on immigration. But others are facing difficult reelection campaigns this fall: a leader of the petition effort, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, represents a south Florida district that went for Hillary Clinton by 16 points. Seven Republicans on the petition, including Paulsen, are rated to have “toss-up” contests by the Cook Political Report, which rates the competitiveness of congressional races.

The petition has the backing of all 193 Democratic House members, meaning that only five more Republican signatures are needed to force the immigration votes. Leaders of the effort believe they have those five signatures, but they are holding off for now: before Congress broke for the Memorial Day recess, they met with GOP brass and conservative leaders to try to come to some agreement on scheduling immigration votes.

Republicans of all stripes told the press that progress was being made, but a special meeting on June 7 will decide if Republicans will come to an agreement to end the immigration rebellion — or whether pro-immigration Republicans will force their petition.

‘This is the next move’

Of Minnesota’s three Republican House members, it is Paulsen who has been the most vocal in pushing a solution for the Dreamers since Trump terminated DACA in September 2017.

His office did not respond to requests for comment for this article, but in January, Paulsen said that “we need to ensure children who came to the United States through no fault of their own have the opportunity to remain productive contributors to our community.” (He also said that providing funds for border security is important — suggesting he’d back a trade-off proposal.)

Luke Hellier, a GOP operative who used to work for Paulsen, said the congressman is doing what he was elected to do.

“Look, this is a mess the president created,” Hellier said. “Since that’s happened, he hasn’t shown any leadership. This is an effort by Erik, Curbelo, and others do to what Congress is supposed to do and fix the problem.”

“There are too many hard-liners who don’t want to do anything, to coast in their R+20 district and not do anything at all. They have no interest in fixing this problem. If nothing is getting done, this is the next move.”

Before Trump’s DACA moved sparked public outcry, however, Paulsen was less willing to buck his party’s leadership on immigration. In 2010, he voted against the DREAM Act when it came to the House floor; in 2014, he voted in favor of a measure to undo temporary protections from deportation for Dreamers put in place by the Barack Obama administration.

In that light, Paulsen’s support of the discharge petition was viewed with cynicism from Democrats. Javier Morillo, head of Minnesota’s chapter of the Service Employees International Union, said Paulsen has repeatedly failed immigrant communities in Minnesota. “This deathbed conversion is welcome, but his otherwise blind support for Trump makes it a day late and a dollar short,” Morillo said.

Defying GOP leadership

In a centrist district like Minnesota’s 3rd — which went for Clinton by nine points in 2016 — Paulsen’s move could have the added benefit of showing independent-minded voters that he is not in lockstep with GOP leadership and Trump.

Alex Conant, a Minnesota native and former adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio, told The Hill newspaper that “A lot of these members are in swing districts where they are not worried about criticism from Republican leaders or the White House. In fact, in some cases, it might help.”

Opinion polling on the Dreamers consistently finds the public supportive: in January, a CBS News poll found that 87 percent of Americans believe the young immigrants should be able to remain in the U.S. A poll from National Public Radio in February found two out of three Americans want Dreamers to be given legal status.

Paulsen may be wagering that supporting the discharge petition will improve his standing among swing voters more than it diminishes his reputation among core GOP voters — and that openly defying key allies like Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is worth it.

But for top Republicans, the discharge petition campaign puts GOP control of the House on the line, while showcasing the party’s deep fissures on a key issue as the midterms loom five months away.

In a closed meeting in May, a stern McCarthy told his conference that the discharge petition succeeding would cost the GOP their majority, by alienating core Republican voters. “If you want to depress intensity, this is the No. 1 way to do it,” McCarthy said, according to Politico.

The other Republican incumbent in Minnesota facing a tough reelection, freshman Rep. Jason Lewis, confirmed he will not be backing the discharge petition.

“All of us want a good deal on DACA, but a discharge petition severely hampers our ability to get one,” Lewis said in a statement. “As I have said repeatedly, DACA is a symptom of a porous border which must be secured with any legislation. Without controlling adult illegal immigration, there will be many more kids stuck in this situation in the future. That’s not fair to them, it’s not fair to those who follow the rules and it’s not fair to Minnesota and the country. Let’s get this done the right way.”

(The office of Rep. Tom Emmer did not respond to request for comment on the 6th District congressman’s stance on the discharge petition.)

Hopeful for a solution

Though the discharge petition has become a political weapon, Minnesota’s immigrant advocates are approaching the fight somewhat hopefully, and are viewing Paulsen’s move as a sign that there could be a groundswell of bipartisan support for action in favor of the Dreamers.

John Keller, director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, told MinnPost that the fact that the discharge petition is close to having the required signatures “confirms for me this is a really special immigration issue.”

Keller has had meetings with the staffs of each Minnesota Republican representative and he said that each was supportive of the Dreamers, even if not all were on board with the discharge petition itself.

He welcomed Paulsen’s support, but added that he was disappointed that Paulsen hasn’t been “more consistent” on immigration issues.

“He’s sort of the perfect Republican, and has the perfect district, to be a consistent leader on these issues,” Keller said, mentioning the support in the business community — which is an influential presence in CD3 — for a DACA fix.

“But the fact that he was the only Republican after four, five days who came out and who did sort of break with leadership, for the first time I can recall on a major issue — we’ll take any and all support.”

Currently, the Dreamers are in limbo: when Trump canceled DACA last September, he allowed for a six-month transition period to give Congress time to come up with a permanent legislative fix. House GOP leadership never brought any bills to the floor, and it took Democrats using shutdown leverage to force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to put immigration proposals on the upper chamber’s floor.

In February, after a week of debate, none of the three immigration proposals under consideration, each of which contained some kind of DACA fix, got the required 60 votes to advance out of the Senate. Currently protecting the 800,000 Dreamers in the U.S. from deportation are a set of injunctions issued by federal district courts challenging the Trump administration’s handling of DACA.

It could be a year until the U.S. Supreme Court issues a definitive ruling on DACA. But Keller and others are hopeful that congressional options are not exhausted. He is urging Republicans to back the petition, not to endorse any specific bill, but to spark an open debate and vote on DACA that the House has not yet had.

“The longer we can keep talking about these young people, and really draw some lines — who wants to support them and who doesn’t — that moves us closer to eventually fixing it,” Keller says. “Whether the stars align before the election or not.”