House Republican leaders this week did some late-stage maneuvering to overcome GOP objections to portions of the party’s long-awaited border crackdown bill, overcoming a hurdle to advance a priority central to their midterm campaigns.

The Secure the Border Act — given the designation of H.R. 2, which indicates a top priority for the party — would severely limit asylum approvals and push border security measures such as building former President Trump’s border wall.

It comes as the border is in the spotlight due to the end of Title 42 this week.

But it spurred concerns from both moderates and hardline conservatives about other provisions, including how mandatory use of E-Verify would affect the agricultural workforce and a proposed study evaluating whether to label cartels as foreign terrorist organizations.

Agriculture-focused moderates such as Reps. David Valadao (R-Calif.) and Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) had expected House GOP leaders would amend the bill Tuesday evening in the House Rules Committee — the last stop before the House floor — in order to address their E-Verify concerns. At the same time, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) sounded the alarm about opposition to the cartel terrorist organization portion.

After leaders did not change the bill in the Rules Committee, opposition forced them to delay a scheduled procedural vote on the bill as members and leadership hashed out last-minute changes that were later approved in a floor amendment Wednesday.

Reps. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) and Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) voted against the changes, which passed with the support of 22 Democrats. A vote on House passage is expected Thursday.

The bill was amended to include “sense of Congress” language dictating that, in enacting the E-Verify requirement, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must ensure “any adverse impact on the nation’s agricultural workforce operations and food security are considered and addressed.” It did not, however, strip the underlying requirement to use the system to check whether potential employees are authorized to work in the U.S. 

Newhouse told reporters after the vote that he expects other members who share his concerns will be, like him, in support of the bill on the House floor Thursday after the changes.

“We should be in a good place,” Newhouse says.

The bill as written would have mandated a sweeping E-Verify requirement. Though use of the system has often been a GOP priority, the measure proved alarming to Republicans in agricultural states, even with the two-and-a-half year phase-in provided in the original language.

Many farmers rely on seasonal farm labor, often hiring those already present in the United States. But E-Verify could risk highlighting undocumented farm workers, reducing potential hires in an industry that’s already struggling for workers.

For farmers to bring in temporary workers from another country, they must take on substantial costs, paying for transporting workers to and from their home country and supplying housing for the duration of their stay.

Also at issue was a provision in the bill that would have forced DHS to study whether cartels should be designated as foreign terrorist organizations, a prospect now largely stripped from the bill. 

The language in the original bill seemed to nod to concerns from members, with a breakdown of the bill adding it included language that “clarifies that nothing in this section may be construed to expand the eligibility for asylum.”

A report would merely evaluate the option and asylum law already does not allow for granting the status to those fleeing terrorism if they aren’t otherwise being persecuted for their identity or beliefs. 

Yet as members expressed caution about a report suggesting the designation, lawmakers stripped the word “terrorist” from the bill, along with making a few other changes. 

Instead of DHS leading the charge, the bill was amended to leave to Congress the responsibility for commissioning a report evaluating a national security strategy for the U.S. regarding cartels, and calls for “a determination regarding whether there should be a designation established” with regard to cartels.

“Why in the hell would we ask [DHS Secretary] Alejandro Mayorkas to tell us a damn thing when he can’t find his ass from a hole in the ground when it comes to dealing with the border?” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who was involved in the closed-door discussions over several hours as the procedural vote on the bill was delayed.

And Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) likewise said they should not be “ceding authority to the secretary.” 

“What we’re saying is Congress is actually going to take the lead on that,” Donalds said.

“We’re trying to make sure that whatever we put into language actually helps our country. So I think having strategies brought together before those types of designations are made is appropriate.”

Gonzales, whose district is along the U.S.-Mexico border, voted against the amendment, criticizing his colleagues for watering down the bill’s language when it comes to cartels. 

“It boggles my mind why we wouldn’t designate cartels as terrorists,” he said.  

“One, it would give teeth to agencies that could go after cartels’ financial accounts. And the second is it would make sure that we throw the book at them, and we’d have more legal recourse as well. … And so to have [at] the 11th hour strip away some of the teeth is very disappointing.”

But Gonzales, who had publicly sparred with Roy over asylum provisions for months as the House crafted the bill, said he plans to vote for the bill Thursday.

While the last-minute wrangling appeared to secure enough votes for passage in the House on Thursday — the day the Biden administration lifts Title 42 — it is not expected to become law, facing significant opposition in the Democratic-led Senate.

Gonzles called the ability to secure the votes a “false victory.”

“To me, it’s only a start. Until the president of the United States signs a bill into law, all of this is theater. And a lot of people are good at political theater,” he said.

“Meanwhile, back in my district, we’re dealing with a real crisis.”