Top members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus told reporters they are closely watching how House Speaker Paul Ryan navigates the immigration debate as a test of whether they can continue to support him as their leader.
“It is the defining moment for this speaker,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., “If he gets it wrong, it will have consequences for him but it will also have consequences for the rest of the Republican Party.”
Meadows said there is no conversations “right now” about challenging Ryan’s speakership, but Freedom Caucus members made clear there could be if they feel betrayed by leadership on immigration.
Conservatives are closely watching what happens in the Senate on immigration. There is simmering concern that any Senate bipartisan deal will ultimately pass on the strength of Democratic support, which will put similar pressures on the House to do the same.
“On immigration, you really just need a [House] Democrat bill with 30 Republicans to pass something,” said Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, “That’s not what we promised America we were going to do.”
If such a scenario were realized, conservatives like Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., say it might be time for a leadership shake-up. “If the fix is in on something like this it’s going to be really really problematic, and as Mark said, not just for our party and for Americans but for the people making big decisions around this place,” he said.
Ryan’s current management problem on immigration is compounded by last week’s passage of a two-year spending deal. It included $300 billion in new spending and a hike in the nation’s debt limit that many conservatives say violated the kind of fiscal promises they made when they won control of the House in 2010.
The vast majority of Republicans sided with Ryan–and President Trump–in support of the spending deal, but 67 Republicans opposed it. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, was one of them. He said the vote shook his confidence in Ryan’s long-stated commitment to the conservative cause. “Just a few years ago Speaker Ryan was viewed as the individual in our party, in our country, who was focused on fiscal responsibility, and then you saw what happened last week,” he said.
Ryan’s well-known and more moderate views on immigration are giving conservatives pause, even as he has consistently said he will not bring an immigration bill to the floor that President Trump opposes.
Conservatives are concerned that any legislation that doesn’t track with the hardline immigration stances trumpeted by Trump on the campaign trail will be demoralizing to the party’s base in this midterm election year.
“This president was elected largely on the issue of immigration that defined him differently than every other candidate, and so it is the defining moment, more so than the budget or anything else that we’ve passed,” Meadows said.
For his part, Ryan told reporters last week that he doesn’t lose any sleep about what’s at stake for his own personal fortunes in this immigration debate. “I don’t think about it at all,” he said.
It’s still unclear if the House will even take up an immigration bill.
If the Senate can’t pass any legislation this week, the speaker isn’t going to force an ugly vote on his members if there’s no chance of it becoming law. For some House conservatives, no immigration deal might be the best deal.