Turlock Republican Rep. Jeff Denham's pro-immigrant amendment to a big defense bill Tuesday exposed, once again, deep fault lines in his party.
Backed by some rank-and-file Republicans as well as Democrats, Denham wants to reward immigrants who enlist in the military by providing them with legal status. But alarmed GOP leaders in the House of Representatives, seemingly fearful of riling up tea party conservatives and border-control hawks, are blocking the effort.
On Tuesday, the intraparty conflict came to the fore when Denham formally proposed his amendment even as Republican leaders kept it from getting a vote.
"We're going to continue this fight," Denham said. "These men and women want to serve the only country they know."
Denham's measure, first introduced and possibly resurrectable as a standalone bill, authorizes undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before they were 15 to enlist in the military. The enlistees would then be granted legal permanent resident status, which would be rescinded if they were discharged under other than honorable conditions.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday morning that it would be inappropriate for Denham's amendment to be allowed on the House floor as part of the defense bill. Doug Heye, spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., drove home the point, reiterating that Denham's amendment wouldn't be permitted on the House floor during the debate on the defense bill.
Dubbed the ENLIST Act, a similar bill reached the House floor last year, but then Denham withdrew it to allow further consideration. Since then, conservative groups and lawmakers have hardened their opposition, with some saying they'd give bad marks to House members who supported it.
"ENLIST Act is backdoor amnesty," Heritage Action for America, a conservative advocacy group, declares on its website, adding that "historically, validating illegal behavior has only served to promote it."
For Denham, this isn't a complete loss. In his congressional district, an independent streak on immigration could prove helpful. Forty-one percent of the residents of his 10th Congressional District are identified as Hispanic or Latino, according to the Census Bureau.
Democrat Michael Eggman -- as well as underfunded Democrat Michael Barkley -- is hoping to challenge Denham in the district, which spans Stanislaus County and part of San Joaquin County.
Denham previously set himself apart from the Republican pack by becoming the first House GOP member to publicly endorse a comprehensive immigration overhaul passed by the Senate.
"People at home know what I'm fighting for," he said.
Current law doesn't permit the military services to enlist those who aren't U.S. citizens or legal residents. About 24,000 noncitizens who are legal permanent residents are serving. In addition, up to 1,500 immigrants who are in the U.S.
illegally may enlist annually if the military deems them to be "vital to the national interest." These are typically immigrants with skills in certain languages or health professions.
Denham's legislation to revise these enlistment policies has 50 co-sponsors, almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Among them is Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, the California Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee.
Earlier this year, though, McKeon declined to include the immigrant measure in the National Defense Authorization Act. The 727-page bill authorizes military spending for the 2015 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
The omission forced Denham to cast the measure as a floor amendment, for which he needed the approval Tuesday of the House Rules Committee. The 13-member panel, a tool of Republican leadership and dominated by nine GOP members, decides which proposed amendments reach the House floor.
While the rules panel was meeting late Tuesday, the prior statements of Boehner and Cantor effectively foreshadowed its presumed decision to nix the Denham amendment.
"They are fighting a difficult fight with members of their own party, and sometimes with their own leadership," Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said of Denham and his allies.
More than 300 other amendments were proposed to the rules panel, which began wading through them Tuesday afternoon. Northern California Democrat John Garamendi, for one, co-authored language clarifying that the defense bill didn't authorize military strikes against Syria or Iran. Tulare Republican Devin Nunes authored a measure retaining the use of an air base in the Azores.