WASHINGTON — Centrist House Republicans have always been like the dependable partner in a turbulent relationship — slightly dull, predictable, the one who remembers family birthdays and pays the bills. It was members of the hard-right caucus who provided the exciting but volatile side, always threatening to break things off unless they got their way.
Now the centrists, with their political careers squarely on the line in the midterm elections this fall, are finally putting their foot down. In a marked departure from their usually cooperative nature, a bloc of mainstream House Republicans is challenging both the hard right and their leadership by demanding an immigration vote that they say is long overdue and essential to their electoral well-being.
“We are generally people who like to work collaboratively, who are patient and willing to listen,” said Representative Carlos Curbelo, an at-risk centrist Republican from South Florida. “But I think most of us aren’t willing to accept an institution where member suppression is a goal of the leadership. We have grown impatient.”
Frustrated by years of Republican House leaders refusing to consider legislation on immigration because of fierce resistance from the far right, Mr. Curbelo initiated a seldom-used procedural maneuver known as a discharge petition to try to force the House to vote on a series of immigration proposals. The goal is to resolve uncertainty surrounding undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
It was a confrontational move because it represents an attempt to strip control of the House floor from his own party’s leadership. The tactic, which requires the signed consent of a majority of the House, rarely works except as a political stunt because party leaders can dissuade potentially mutinous members with threats to punish those who sign on. But there have been notable exceptions, including the 2001 enactment of the sweeping campaign finance bill that followed a successful discharge petition to overcome a leadership blockade.
The internal momentum for an immigration vote has alarmed the hard-right, often uncompromising members of the House Freedom Caucus. They correctly fear that a combination of Democrats and Republicans could propel a measure protecting the undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers to passage if it reaches the floor.
Unhappy with the way things were shaping up, Freedom Caucus members expressed their displeasure last week by helping defeat an unrelated but politically consequential farm bill in a major embarrassment for Speaker Paul D. Ryan. That outcome also raised new questions about Mr. Ryan’s ability to hold on to power given his lame-duck status.
“We clearly have members at opposite ends of our spectrum who are frustrated with one another,” Mr. Ryan acknowledged on Tuesday.
But the centrists are not backing down. With nearly two dozen Republicans and most Democrats signing on, backers remain just short of the goal of 218 signatures to force action. But they say they have more than enough commitments to put the petition over the top if the leadership does not acquiesce and assure a vote on immigration policy.
“Moderates are united on this,” said Representative Leonard Lance, an endangered New Jersey Republican who said this was the first time as a member of the majority party that he had signed a discharge petition. “This issue should be addressed.”
Party leaders say that approving legislation protecting undocumented immigrants participating in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program would be a political mistake and sap conservative enthusiasm heading into a difficult November midterm election environment.
But the Republicans most at risk this year aren’t conservatives in deep-red districts. It is the more centrist Republicans in swing districts who face significant challenges. They need independent and moderate Republican voters to survive. An immigration vote could be a big boost, particularly in regions with large Hispanic populations such as California, Florida, Texas, New York and New Jersey, the very places where Democrats are confident they can make major inroads into the Republican majority.
Republicans say they need something to counter Democratic energy.
“Voters need to see action, and Republicans need to prove we are capable of leading on tough issues,” said Sarah Chamberlain, the president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group of centrists that styles itself as the “governing wing” of the party. “We need to work together as one team if we want to keep the majority in G.O.P. hands.”
Her group is backing about 75 House members and is now playing in primary elections around the country. In recent head-to-head contests, Republican candidates supported by the organization defeated four candidates backed by the Freedom Caucus — two each in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The group believes that it can hold contested swing seats by placing moderate Republicans on the ballot, arguing that conservatives would most likely fall to a Democrat in those communities.
Mr. Curbelo admits it feels a little out of character for him to be fomenting an insurrection.
“I’m not a fan of revolutions,” said Mr. Curbelo, who is Cuban-American. “My family had to flee one. But we’ve worked very hard to come here and represent our communities, and I’m not here to pass the time.”
He and others say the brewing fight extends beyond immigration to the central question of how House Republicans govern and whether the party will continue to allow its agenda to be dictated by one wing.
“This is about whether members are going to sit back and allow a minority of the majority to suppress other members,” he said. “We simply want the opportunity, not a guarantee. We just want the opportunity to advance our ideas and to convince our colleagues that our ideas should be supported.”
Immigration has divided Republicans for years, and a successful outcome now in the heat of a midterm seems unlikely even if the moderates get their vote.
But given the makeup of the districts where the midterm elections will be decided, simply holding the vote could be a selling point for some centrists. And it will be the electoral success or failure of embattled centrists, not House conservatives, that will determine whether Republicans are able to hold the House in November.
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