By Russell Berman - 04/29/14 11:06 AM EDT
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday told a private Republican Party meeting that there is no “secret conspiracy” to jam through an immigration overhaul, according to one member in the room.
Boehner used the meeting to walk back his comments last week seen as mocking his own members for lacking the courage to tackle immigration reform that he has advocated but that many conservative in the House Republican conference continue to resist.
Boehner instead put the blame for inaction back on President Obama, saying public and congressional distrust of the president was why the issue had not advanced in the House.
“He was crystal clear,” Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) said after the meeting. “President Obama is the reason we don’t have immigration [reform.]”
Boehner last week told a hometown Rotary club in Ohio that many of his colleagues “take the path of least resistance” rather than make hard choices like confronting a broken immigration system.
“Here's the attitude. 'Ohhhh. Don't make me do this. Ohhhh. This is too hard,'” Boehner said in a high-pitched voice likening his fellow Republicans to a small child.
On Tuesday, meeting with Republicans after they returned from a two-week recess, Boehner told lawmakers it was just a little teasing.
“There was no mocking,” he told reporters at a press conference after the meeting. “You all know me. You tease the ones you love, alright? But some people misunderstood what I had to say, and I wanted to make sure members understood that the biggest impediment we have to moving immigration reform is that the American people don’t trust the president to enforce or implement the law that we may or may not pass.
“I’ve said it here, it’s the truth and the members know it’s the truth,” Boehner added.
The Speaker drew immediate criticism from conservatives in the conference, who suggested they didn’t take his remarks as a joke.
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), a Boehner critic who has worked on immigration reform in the past, said he was “disappointed” in the Speaker’s comments.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said on Fox News on Friday that Boehner’s remarks were “outrageous” and warned that any member of the leadership who pushed a comprehensive bill that offered “amnesty” to illegal immigrants would lose their post in a revolt.
Asked on Friday whether his members took his comments as friendly teasing, Boehner replied: “Our members know me. Alright? But, you know, sometimes I can rib people just a little too much.”
The Speaker has sent mixed messages in recent weeks on the status of immigration reform, an issue he once labeled as a priority but which most in Washington have considered dead for the year.
Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that Boehner told a private group he remained “hell bent” on passing legislation this year, but his aides have said the House remains unlikely to act unless Obama rebuilds trust with Congress – a steep requirement among Republicans unlikely to occur within a window of a few months.
And last week, the fourth-ranking House Republican, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), said bills could come to the floor by the August recess.
Inside the GOP meeting, Boehner reiterated his longstanding statement that the House would not negotiate on the comprehensive bill the Senate passed last June.
“He said there’s no secret conspiracy to have comprehensive immigration reform passed,” Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said. “He said that until this president proves that he’s willing to abide by existing law that we’re not going to pass new laws.”
But Boehner did not close the door to House action on immigration entirely. Fleming said the House could act on bills that seek to force Obama to enforce and implement laws as Congress intended, something Republicans say he has not done in implementing his own healthcare law.
Asked by a reporter whether the House would vote on an immigration bill by August, Boehner could not say.
“We know we have a broken immigration system,” he said. “We’re going to work with our members, have discussions and see if there’s a way forward. But, the president needs to take action himself. He’s got to show the American people and show the Congress he can be trusted to implement the law the way it may be passed.”
Boehner's comments follow a prediction by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Monday that Congress would pass an immigration reform bill this year.
“I want to let you in on a little secret. We are going to pass that bill and sign it into law this year," Schumer, a member of the “Gang of Eight” that helped push a immigration package through the Senate last year, said at the Citizenship Now immigration hotline in New York, according to the Daily News.
"The Republican Party knows if it continues to be seen as anti-immigrant, they're going to lose election after election ... Their leadership knows it, and they're trying to convince the rank and file," Schumer said.
Democratic leaders have said they were encouraged by comments in recent weeks by Boehner and other House Republicans voicing a desire to act on immigration reform, but they said the decision is the Speaker's alone.
"We've always known that there is support for dealing with a common-sense fix for our broken immigration system within the Republican ranks," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic caucus. "It's whether they would allow those votes to occur that would give us the passage of the bill."
"I think it's going to percolate," Becerra added. "I believe that we're not done with immigration. And I believe that before the year is out we will have done something significant, simply because I think the Republican leadership understands that this will overwhelm them. They cannot stop this tide."
--Mike Lillis contributed to this report, which was updated at 11:28 a.m.