WASHINGTON (AP) — Divided House Republicans left a bargaining session Tuesday saying they'd not reached an immigration compromise. Leaders expressed optimism that an accord was near but provided no detail, and left unanswered whether restive moderates would move to force votes soon on the troublesome issue.
Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., led a meeting with top centrist and conservative lawmakers in hopes of defusing an election-year civil war the party worries will alienate right-leaning voters. For weeks, the two factions have hunted ways to bolster border security and provide a route to citizenship for immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children, but they have failed to find middle ground.
"We're still working to finalize what will move forward," said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. "We're close, we're very close."
Moderates led by Reps. Carlos Curbelo of Florida and California's Jeff Denham have said that without an agreement, they would on Tuesday get the 218 signatures — a House majority — needed on a petition triggering votes later this month on four immigration bills. They are three names short but have said they have enough supporters to succeed.
By dinner time Tuesday, the petition remained at 215 signatures, though groups of lawmakers were meeting into the evening. If moderates remain short of 218 names, the petition would remain alive and they could still try forcing the votes in July, giving them continued leverage.
House GOP leaders have loudly opposed the rarely used petition tactic, asserting those votes would probably produce a liberal-leaning bill backed by Democrats and just a smattering of Republicans.
Instead, they've been trying to craft a right-leaning measure. It was unclear whether GOP leaders were trying to construct a deal between the GOP's two wings or a bill that leaders would try bringing to the House floor whether or not there was an agreement. That could let them leave the issue behind as November congressional elections approach.
Curbelo did not respond when asked if moderates' petition would reach the required signatures later Tuesday. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who leads the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, said, "I'm optimistic that we can find a path forward to avoid" the petition.
Republicans have long failed to find compromise between centrists with Hispanic and moderate-minded constituents, and conservatives whose voters back President Donald Trump's hard-line views.
Any deal is likely to include much if not all of the $25 billion Trump wants to build his proposed wall with Mexico and other security steps. But there have been disagreements over details, such as conservative plans to make it easier to deport some immigrants here legally.
Aides said any pact would probably include provisions changing how immigrant children are separated from their families at the border. Trump's recent clampdown on people entering the U.S. illegally has resulted in hundreds of children being separated from their families and a public relations black eye for the administration.
No law requires those children to be taken from their parents. A two-decade old court settlement requires those who are separated to be released quickly to relatives or qualified programs. Republicans are seeking language to make it easier to keep the families together longer, said several Republicans.
Ryan and other GOP leaders have been trying to persuade moderate Republicans to not sign the petition. Three Republican aides said that as part of that, party leaders have promised votes later this year on a bill dealing with migrant agriculture workers and requirements that employers use a government online system to verify workers' citizenship.
The Republicans spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private talks.
Trump last year terminated the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, though federal court orders have kept the program functioning for now. Hundreds of thousands of young immigrants have benefited from DACA or could qualify for it, and moderates want legislation that would give these so-called Dreamers a way to become legal residents and ultimately citizenship.
Conservatives have derided that step as amnesty for lawbreakers and have resisted providing a special pathway to protect them.
In recent days, talks have focused on proposals that give the Dreamers a way to gain legal status. They've discussed making them eligible for visas now distributed under existing programs that would be curtailed. That could include limiting the relatives immigrants can bring to the U.S. and ending a lottery that provides visas to people from countries with low immigration rates.
Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.