President Barack Obama formally endorsed a long-shot legislative gambit from House Democrats aimed at forcing a vote on comprehensive immigration reform as he blamed House Republicans for stalling an overhaul.
In a three-paragraph statement, Obama said he “applauds” the strategy from Democrats to use a discharge petition to get a vote on immigration reform legislation. A successful petition needs 218 signatures — a threshold all but certain to not be reached.
“Immigration reform is the right thing to do for our economy, our security and our future,” Obama said. “A vast majority of the American people agree. The only thing standing in the way is the unwillingness of Republicans in Congress to catch up with the rest of the country.”
Obama’s statement — released the same day that the discharge petition was filed — is unusual. The White House did not release similar statements when House Democrats deployed the tactic on two occasions this year to raise the federal minimum wage and extend unemployment insurance.
A discharge petition forces House leaders to put legislation on the floor for a vote. It needs a majority of House members, or 218 signatures, to succeed. Such efforts are rarely successful because signing the petition is considered a sign of disloyalty for a member of the majority party.
Even if all 199 sitting Democrats endorse the immigration discharge petition, it would still need 19 GOP signatures.
Though they have hinted at the effort for weeks, House Democrats on Wednesday formally launched the discharge petition effort to force a vote on a sweeping bill much like the version that passed the Senate, except that it scales back its so-called border surge provisions. During an outdoor rally in unusually frigid and snowy March weather, a slew of House Democrats and immigration activists urged support for the legislative strategy and pressed for a floor vote on reform.
“Every day that you refuse to act is another day that 1,100 families are torn apart by senseless deportations,” said actress and activist America Ferrera in a message directed at House Republicans. “So we are here, demanding a vote for the families dreading that knock on the door, hoping and praying that they will not be one of the 1,100 today.”
On Wednesday, aides to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) noted comments made by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) earlier this month, acknowledging that Democrats will not secure the necessary signatures. Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said simply: “We agree with Rep. Pelosi.”
Still, Democrats hope the existence of a discharge petition keeps focus and pressure on House Republicans on immigration. The strategy also takes some attention away from the scrutiny and furor that Obama has recently faced from Democratic lawmakers and activists over the rising number of deportations under his administration.
And some activists were highly critical of the Democratic discharge petition, calling it nothing more than a political stunt. The three Republicans who have co-sponsored the House Democrats’ immigration bill have all said they won’t sign it.
“House Democrats should focus on pressuring the White House to halt deportations and provide administrative relief for our families,” said Cristina Jimenez, the managing director of United We Dream, a nationwide coalition of immigrant youth. “They cannot simply seek political cover by gathering meaningless petition signatures while standing on the sidelines and refusing to take action to ease the suffering in our communities.”