House Republican leaders suffered a setback Friday when conservatives scuttled an ambitious farm bill, part of a high-stakes power play as they once again exert their oversized sway in the House.
In this case, conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus wanted to slow the momentum of bipartisan immigration legislation to help young "Dreamers." Republican moderates are gaining ground with their immigration effort and conservatives don't like the deals taking shape. By withholding their votes on the farm bill, they flexed their political muscle to doom both.
Not even a tweet from President Donald Trump supporting the farm bill could save it from the chaos Friday. It was defeated, 213-198. Some 30 Republicans joined with every chamber Democrat in opposition.
The vote was a blow to GOP leaders, exposing the power struggle underway as leaders jockey to replace Speaker Paul Ryan, who is not seeking re-election. It disrupts GOP efforts to portray party unity ahead of the midterm election and to rack up legislative wins to motivate voters to the polls to keep their majority.
Trump is "disappointed in the result of today's vote" and "hopes the House can resolve any remaining issues," said Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters.
The outcome also shelves for now the big, five-year farm bill, a top GOP priority because it combines stricter work and job training requirements for food stamp recipients — long pushed by Ryan as part of his safety net cuts — with a renewal of farm subsidies popular in GOP-leaning farm country.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a veteran campaign strategist, said it's a "mistake" for conservatives to play the farm and immigration bills against each other. "You don't hold one thing hostage for something that's totally different," he said.
Conservatives, though, have gained clout in the House by withholding their block of some 30 votes to exert their sway on legislation. That strategy is only expected to escalate as they jockey for promotions up the leadership ladder once Ryan retires.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a leader of the House Freedom Caucus who has expressed an interest in running for House speaker, said some conservatives had concerns over the farm bill, largely because of its spending, but "my main focus was making sure we do immigration policy right."
Democrats are strongly opposed to the farm bill, saying the stricter work and job training rules are poorly designed and would drive 2 million people off food stamps. They took a victory lap after the vote.
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. said the dysfunction under the Republican majority in Congress is another reason why voters in November "are going to give us their jobs."
The farm bill's rejection scrambled the prospects for what had seemed to be an agreement over the immigration standoff.
House Republicans, including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., worked into the night trying to negotiate a resolution and some thought they had a reached a deal. It would have allowed rival immigration bills to proceed to the floor by late June.
One bill from hard-liners would reduce legal immigration and open the door to Trump's border wall with Mexico. A second, being negotiated with the White House, GOP leaders and Democrats, would be aimed at and bolstering border security and helping young "Dreamer" immigrants — those who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children — to remain permanently in the U.S.
The accord was aimed at heading off a drive by moderates who are just five Republican signatures short on a petition to force votes on a bipartisan immigration bill Democrats would likely support.
The deputy whip, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., said it was only when he arrived on the floor Friday that he realized the farm bill would come up short. He said the conservative flank is "trying to extract something" more on immigration.
But Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the head of the Freedom Caucus, told reporters there was "no deal" on immigration. He downplayed the setback on the farm bill, saying "it's not a fatal blow. It's just a reorganizing."
The scramble will likely drive more Republicans to sign on to the renegade effort to push the compromise immigration bill to a floor vote over the objection of party leaders.
Conservatives defended their move, saying they are standing for voters who want Trump's border wall and other stricter immigration measures and want assurances that GOP leaders would not help an overly moderate immigration bill clear the House. Said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., a Freedom Caucus member, "The farm bill was just a casualty, unfortunately."
But Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, who supports both the farm bill and the immigration effort, said the conservatives once again played into the hands of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, joining Democrats in dooming the GOP bill.
"Nancy Pelosi and her allies just won a big victory," he said.
As for the farm bill's fate, the debacle appears to make it even more likely that Congress will simply extend the current farm bill when it expires in September.
In the Senate, Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., is promising a competing bill later this month. He's signaling that its changes to food stamps would be far more modest than the House measure.