WASHINGTON — In a major blow to House Speaker Paul Ryan, Republican leaders failed to garner enough votes for a sweeping GOP farm bill amid a revolt from hardline conservatives who opposed the bill over an unrelated immigration fight.
Friday's 198-to-213 vote was an embarrassing defeat for Ryan, R-Wis., who had championed the farm bill as a major step toward welfare reform but saw that GOP priority squelched by members of his own Republican conference. Thirty Republicans, conservatives and moderates alike, voted against the House leadership bill, along with all 183 Democrats who were present.
President Trump supported the measure, and White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said Friday the president was "disappointed in the result of today’s vote."
The House bill would have set food and farm policy for the next five years — affecting everything from crop subsidies to rural development to land conservation.
The most contentious element of the GOP-crafted bill would have restricted eligibility in the food stamp program and required millions of low-income Americans who receive nutritional assistance to work at least 20 hours a week or enroll in a job training program.
Ryan and other GOP leaders will now have to grapple with the volatile issue of immigration to satisfy arch-conservatives who want the House to vote on a hardline measure that would slash legal immigration and authorize construction of Trump’s border wall. Members of the House Freedom Caucus said Republican leaders had failed to make good on promises to deal with the immigration issue, and their only leverage was to hold up the farm bill.
Ryan is also being squeezed by moderates who support a softer approach to immigration, and they will almost certainly be emboldened by Friday's vote to ratchet up their push for a bipartisan immigration bill.
More immediately, Friday's vote opened a new rift among Republicans, with many rank-and-file Republicans furious with the conservative faction for tanking a farm bill that included a major conservative priority: adding work requirements to the food stamp program.
“Nancy Pelosi and her allies just won a big victory taking down the farm bill,” fumed Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, R-Fla.
Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, said the GOP conference was growing increasingly frustrated with the Freedom Caucus' tactics.
"I don’t know why you would hold this vote hostage and do that to us on the floor," Cole said.
Cole noted that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., had already promised the Freedom Caucus a vote in June on their preferred immigration bill — a measure sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., that would slash legal immigration and authorize new funding for border security, including President Trump's proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.
As a concession to moderates, the Goodlatte bill would also provide temporary legal protections to the so-called DREAMers, undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. But some Republicans want a permanent solution for DREAMers and say that the bill's other provisions are too severe.
DREAMers have been in legislative limbo since President Trump ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program last year. In the meantime, federal courts have forced the administration to keep the program running, setting up a possible Supreme Court showdown later this year.
Trump has said he supports the Goodlatte bill, but it does not have enough Republican votes to pass the House.
Moderate Republicans are using a rare maneuver known as a "discharge petition" to try to force a vote on a competing immigration bill that has far broader support, including from many Democrats. That bill would grant U.S. citizenship to some DREAMers, strengthen border security, and leave the legal immigration system as is.
If a majority of House members sign on to the discharge petition, it would go straight to the floor, bypassing GOP leaders. Ryan and other GOP leaders have blasted the petition maneuver, saying it would hand power over to House Democrats on immigration.
“The unfortunate thing is by this show today it gives more leverage on the discharge petition, which I think is highly destructive,” said the House GOP's chief deputy whip Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C.
McHenry said it would only be a matter of hours before more Republican centrists signed the discharge petition and forced GOP leaders to deal with a potential immigration free-for-all. If all Democrats sign the petition, Republicans need at least 25 of their own members to join. So far, 20 Republicans had signed on.
Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, of North Carolina, dismissed Friday's vote as a temporary setback and said the party would regroup and pass both the farm bill and immigration legislation.
"It’s not a fatal blow,” Meadows said.
Democrats, meanwhile, were thrilled by Friday's spectacle. They opposed the GOP farm bill because they said the bill's work requirements for food stamp recipients would shred the safety net.
Many food stamp recipients already work, critics argued, and the new requirements could cost families vital nutritional assistance. Every Democrat opposed the bill, and they were delighted to get GOP help in killing the bill — in a display that highlighted GOP dysfunction heading into a tough election season.
Republican leaders seemed uncertain on their next steps. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., would not commit on Friday to a vote on immigration. He insisted Republicans would come back to the farm bill, though he did not say how they would get fresh support for the just-defeated bill.
"We’re not done with this," Scalise said as he left the Capitol Friday. "Obviously we’re going to keep working."
This is not the first time Republicans have tangled over the farm bill. In 2013, the GOP-controlled House defeated a similar five-year farm bill amid conservatives concerns about spending and Democratic anger over food stamp program cuts.