Can a Discharge Petition Get Us Immigration Reform?

Back in July, Steve Benen noted that Nancy Pelosi had discussed the potential for using a discharge petition to force a vote on comprehensive immigration reform in the House of Representatives. Now that the Gang of Seven is dissolving, Benen is trying to revive the idea.

A discharge petition is a way that a majority in the House can force a vote on an issue even if the Speaker is opposed to having a vote. Right now, because of two vacancies, a majority in the House requires 217 votes. There are currently 200 sitting Democrats, not all of whom are willing to support comprehensive immigration reform. So, for a discharge petition effort to succeed it would need something like two to three dozen Republicans to sign on.

The problem is that signing a discharge petition when you are in the majority is considered deeply disloyal to the Speaker, and it can come with severe repercussions, like the loss of a committee assignment or the cold shoulder from leadership on favored legislation or fundraising. It isn’t like all the Republicans who support immigration reform are going to be supportive of a discharge petition even if they want reform to pass.

On the other hand, there is a kind of middle road where Republicans who support reform can quietly demonstrate their strength in numbers and offer to spare the Speaker the embarrassment of a discharge petition if he will willingly allow a vote. That kind of gambit would go on behind the scenes, and we might only be able to infer that it took place. In any case, however unlikely, we’re more likely to see Boehner suddenly “see the light” on immigration than to see a successful discharge petition that forces his hand.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at