After conservative revolt, House votes to strip out nonbinding measure, a request for a Pentagon review of letting some illegal immigrants enlist
House Republicans’ objections to a nonbinding immigration measure upended debate over the annual defense policy bill Thursday, in the latest example of intractable GOP divisions over the party’s thorniest issue.
Conservative Republicans revolted over a measure from Rep. Ruben Gallego (D., Ariz.) encouraging the Pentagon to review whether to allow some immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children to enlist in the military.
With the provision threatening to derail passage of the defense bill, the House on Thursday evening passed 221-202 an amendment from Rep. Mo Brooks (R., Ala.) stripping out the immigration measure.
The debate over a “sense of the House” provision that even Mr. Gallego said had “no teeth” underscored the level of GOP opposition to even narrow immigration measures.
“I’m deeply disappointed,” said Rep. Mike Coffman (R., Colo.), a centrist who had tried to boost GOP support for the provision. “This is nonbinding. This merely gives a sense of the Congress to the Department of Defense that this is an issue they ought to look at.”
Democrats said the uproar demonstrated Republican lawmakers’ concerns that any votes that appear supportive of an immigration overhaul could become ammunition in primaries.
“They continue to be held hostage by their base,” said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, a member of House Democratic leadership. “They wake up every morning in fear of a primary, they go to bed every night in fear of a primary and they spend all their time on the floor in fear of a primary.”
Many Republicans, including House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R., Texas) said their opposition was rooted in the view that the defense bill was the wrong place to hold an immigration debate. But Mr. Brooks said he wanted to remove the immigration provision to “stop military service opportunities from being taken from struggling American families and being given to illegal aliens.”
Although GOP leaders typically don’t urge lawmakers to vote one way or another on amendments, Mr. Thornberry and senior leaders pressed Republicans to vote for removing the immigration language, while some centrist GOP lawmakers urged them to keep it in.
The House Armed Services Committee approved adding Mr. Gallego’s measure as an amendment to the defense bill in a 33-30 vote during the committee’s consideration of the bill in late April.
The Pentagon has long allowed green-card holders to serve to enlist in the military. About 25,000 noncitizens currently serve in a range of military jobs, in health care and across the infantry, according to Pentagon officials. Since 2011, 102,000 people have become U.S. citizens while in uniform under the Defense Department program called Military Accessions Vital to National Interest, or MAVNI, which helps bring into the military individuals with specific health-care or linguistic skills as part of the military’s range of counterterrorism missions.
Last year, the Pentagon issued a memo extending the program through 2016. That authorization also allows children of green-card holders to apply for enlistment under the president’s program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, or DACA, which shelters many young people from deportation. Only 81 people have applied to enlist in the Army under the DACA program. But so far, none have finished the qualification process, including background checks, a Pentagon official said.
Democrats on Thursday tried to capitalize on divisions over the issue, including on the 2016 campaign trail, where Hillary Clinton has sought to draw distinctions with the GOP field over immigration.
“If these courageous young men and women want to serve, they should be honored and celebrated, not discriminated against,” Mrs. Clinton’s campaign said in a statement. “Hillary Clinton is committed to comprehensive immigration reform to strengthen families and our country.”
The immigration measure risked derailing the defense bill because many Democrats are expected to vote against its passage on Friday. Conservatives said they would have voted against it had the immigration provision remained, potentially adding up to enough defectors to sink the bill.
Democrats objected to authorizing spending for the Defense Department above spending caps agreed to in 2011 by putting more money into a special war fund not subject to the caps—without similarly increasing domestic spending elsewhere.
“Republicans are trying to use war funding as a virtual slush fund for one part of the budget while letting the axe fall on everything else,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) told reporters Thursday.
House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) said Democrats were using the defense bill as a pawn in the political struggle over federal spending levels.
“Let me be clear. This vote is about whether you support our men and women in uniform,” Mr. Boehner said. “It’s downright shameful that they’re even contemplating turning their backs on our troops.”