STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The House of Representatives faces a vote today that is meaningful and possibly suspenseful. It's a vote on a farm bill - a big deal for farmers, people on food stamps, people who eat food. It's in danger somewhat because Republicans who are pushing the measure are not united. Some are threatening to hold up the bill until they get a vote on immigration. This is part of the much larger debate about DREAMers, people who were brought to this country illegally when they were children. And this effort involving the farm bill is not the only effort out there. Republican Congressman Jeff Denham of California is part of one of them, and he's going to help talk us through this.
Congressman, welcome back to our studios. Thanks for coming by.
JEFF DENHAM: You got it. Thanks for having me again this morning.
INSKEEP: OK. So first, explain for the layman what's going on with this massive farm bill and why it wouldn't just sail through the House as many pieces of legislation do.
DENHAM: Sure. So I'm on the ag committee, and we had a bit of a battle this year. While we've worked for the last couple of years, the chairman has traveled across the country doing listening sessions. The big sticking point here has been the SNAP program, making sure that able-bodied people, anybody who can actually work that is - doesn't have a child at home...
INSKEEP: The question is who gets food stamps.
INSKEEP: All right.
DENHAM: Exactly. So we want to make sure people are getting back to work. That has created a partisan bill. So it's the first time in...
INSKEEP: Democrats think you're being cruel, essentially?
DENHAM: And so it's come out of the committee on a Republican-only vote. And now there is the Freedom Caucus, who's planning to hold up the vote today over their immigration bill.
INSKEEP: This is a group of conservative Republicans. And they want to force the House to vote on their immigration bill, or they'll deny their votes to your farm bill. That's essentially what's happening.
INSKEEP: OK. You think that's going to work?
DENHAM: No, I think it's a flawed strategy. First of all, I think it's tremendously difficult to hold up one issue for another. But secondly, I think that we have the votes to address the immigration side of this. I'm the author of the rule and discharge petition, which is a parliamentary way of bringing up different bills. It's a completely separate issue. But I believe that the American public needs a full debate on immigration.
INSKEEP: All right. Let's talk about...
DENHAM: So the two issues...
DENHAM: ...Are colliding right now.
INSKEEP: Let's talk about that separate issue because we're getting into parliamentary maneuvering. But hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake...
INSKEEP: ...So it's worth explaining this. You and, I believe, about 20 - you're one of about 20 Republicans now who've signed on to the idea of a discharge petition, which would - which is what? What is a discharge petition?
DENHAM: We are looking to have a full debate on immigration reform. So even the Freedom Caucus - their bill would be part of this. They know they don't have enough votes on their bill. And so they're concerned, and that's why they're holding the farm bill hostage.
INSKEEP: Let's explain this. The House leadership has declined to schedule debate on any immigration proposal. You guys have said, we want to override the leadership. If we get a majority of the House of Representatives to sign on, we can force debate on immigration. And we've got this idea to force the House, actually, to vote on four different ideas. Is that right?
DENHAM: Four different ideas - The Freedom Caucus has their bill, which is where this other controversy is coming in. Paul Ryan, the speaker, has his own bill, which he could put the president's four pillars in. The Democrats have their bill, the clean DREAM Act. And then there's the USA Act, which is a very bipartisan bill.
INSKEEP: OK. So what is your bill? If it were up to you - if you got to have the 218 votes at your command, what would you do with people who were brought to this country as children and are here illegally and are looking for some kind of legal status?
DENHAM: The USA Act, I think, is the best bipartisan effort. It not only gives the president what he's asking for on border security but it gives an actual permanent fix for DREAMers.
INSKEEP: Which is?
DENHAM: It would be a five-year and five-year process. So it's similar to the DREAM Act itself - five years, they pass a background check. They pay a fine. They pay a fee. They prove during that five years that they've been working or going to school or they've signed up in the military. The military would actually be the quickest pathway to citizenship.
But after that five years, then you're able to sign up for another five years of conditional residency and then, ultimately, LPR, legal permanent residency and citizenship.
INSKEEP: OK. So...
DENHAM: It is a good bipartisan way to solve this and do it as a permanent fix.
INSKEEP: Could take you a decade - but you're here legally, and you're on your way to becoming a citizen.
DENHAM: And able to work and not fear of deportation, able to go to our universities and even sign up for the military.
INSKEEP: So let's be frank about why this seems to be so difficult for Republicans to address, even though a lot of Republicans, like you, would like to address it. There's been some news reporting suggesting that Republican leaders are really anxious to address DREAMers, to address immigration in this election year because some of your base voters would be unhappy about it and maybe not turn out this fall.
DENHAM: Yeah, we're just elected to lead. And is there ever a right time? I mean, the biggest challenge with immigration reform, whether - no matter which party is in charge, is the timing. There is no perfect time to address this issue. It's not like the farm bill or an appropriations bill or any other bill that actually has a time limit where a bill or an appropriation times out. For immigration, the only time limit we've ever had was the one that was self-imposed by President Trump of March 5. And because of the courts, we blew by that.
So we've now created our own timeline and said, look, you may not like our bill, but let's bring them all up. And let's have a debate in front of the American people and be held accountable to your own district. Let your district talk to you about your vote. And we think that there are some members that, while they're an author on one bill, would still support a compromise. And I think that's the true - the true challenge here is, can you get a compromise? Can you get a bipartisan bill? Can you get something not only to the Senate but the Senate will take up and get signed into law?
INSKEEP: So let's remind people that it is an election year for you as well. And you're going to be in a contested district there in California. Do you believe that your constituents want you to be addressing this, want you to be taking a vote on this and taking a stand on it?
DENHAM: I think that people in my district but across the country are demanding that we fix this. The president tweets about it every other day that he demands a border fix. I believe that we have to have one. But the only way we're going to get one is through doing some bipartisan legislation, which - equally as important is fixing this issue with our DREAMers. So immigration reform covers a lot of different areas important to my community as well. But getting these two big issues done is critical.
INSKEEP: Congressman, thanks for coming by. Always a pleasure talking with you.
DENHAM: Good to have - good to be here with you again.
INSKEEP: Jeff Denham of California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.