WASHINGTON — A week after signaling that House Republicans would pursue an overhaul of immigration laws, Speaker John Boehner declared Thursday that his caucus was unlikely to move forward until President Obama regains their trust.
Boehner was speaking publicly for the first time since releasing a list of GOP “standards” for immigration at a conference retreat last week. His attempt to place the burden on Obama illustrated the mounting opposition from hard-line conservatives and laid the groundwork for laying the blame on the White House if a deal fails.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said this week that an immigration deal remains a long shot in a sharply divided Congress. Rep. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, also suggested that Boehner could lose his speakership if he pursues a bill in a midterm election year.
Aides emphasized that Boehner remains committed to immigration and said he raised concerns about Obama because they had emerged as a consensus during the retreat. But his remarks drew rebukes from advocacy groups frustrated by the verbal zigzags of a speaker who has spent 15 months calling immigration a top priority while refusing to bring any legislation to the House floor.
The White House and congressional Democrats were left searching for clues Thursday to determine whether Boehner was caving in the face of conservative opposition or merely trying to manage an unruly caucus to avoid a full-scale revolt.
“He’s in a very difficult position,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a key architect of a comprehensive Senate immigration bill approved last summer. “He’s trying to figure out, in my judgment, a way to get this done without his caucus — too many in his caucus — rebelling.”
Other Democrats were more pessimistic.
“He put a test balloon up there — and I thank him for that — but I don’t think he got the majority support, so he’s going to try to put blame on the president,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who added that Boehner’s comments confirmed things he has heard from his Republican colleagues in recent days.
“If you were the Republicans and you think you’ve got the Democrats on a good issue, like ‘Obamacare,’ why would you muddle the message before you go into an election?” Cuellar said.
Boehner has wrestled publicly with immigration reform since singling it out as an important issue for Republicans in the wake of the 2012 presidential election, in which Obama was re-elected with more than 70 percent of the vote among Latinos and Asian Americans.
But each time he has been presented with a chance to move forward, Boehner has pulled back sharply. Last summer, after 68 senators approved a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants a chance to earn permanent legal residency in 10 years and citizenship three years later, Boehner declared he could not hold a vote on that plan.
House committees have approved five immigration bills, but the speaker has not brought any of them to the floor for a full vote. After unveiling “principles” last week that included a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, Boehner tacked in the other direction Thursday by accusing Obama of failing to work with Congress.
Mocking Obama’s State of the Union pledge that he will rely on executive action to move forward on economic initiatives, Boehner said, “The president is going to have to rebuild the trust [so] that the American people [and] my colleagues can trust him to enforce the law the way it was written.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney offered a measured response, and defended the president’s record on enforcing border security laws — the Obama administration has deported nearly 2 million immigrants. He also sounded a note of encouragement on how far House Republicans have moved since GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney endorsed “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants.
“Nothing as important, nothing as comprehensive, ever comes fast or easy in Washington, so this won’t be any different,” Carney said. “But it remains an absolute fact that we’ve made enormous progress in building that consensus and that even the Republican Party, which had as its operative policy position not that long ago on this issue ‘self-deportation,’ has come a significant way towards the middle.”
While chiding Obama in public, Boehner and other House GOP leaders have continued to push forward on immigration behind the scenes, said Capitol Hill aides familiar with the deliberations.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., are drafting legislative language on bills dealing with young undocumented immigrants and visas for low-skilled foreign workers that could be introduced in the spring.
Others, including Ryan, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., are working on legislation focused on border security and the legalization of undocumented immigrants, said the aides, who were not authorized to speak on the record about private discussions.
House leaders have considered waiting until after the filing period for most Republican primaries this spring before advancing legislation for a potentially risky vote.
An hour before his news conference, Boehner met privately with retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, 83, who pushed the speaker, a fellow Roman Catholic, to move forward on a broad immigration bill.
“In the long run, it’s counterproductive to suggest moving forward and then not do something,” said Kevin Appleby, migration policy director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “This could signal the need to slow down and determine within the caucus what they want to do. The comments today, in my mind, don’t signal the end of immigration reform this year. It’s part of the process of moving forward.”