By Justin Sink - 08/29/14 01:42 PM EDT
The White House refused Friday to commit to executive actions on immigration by the end of summer, stirring speculation that President Obama might be planning to delay some of the more controversial steps until after the November elections.
"I just don’t have any additional information to share with you about what that time frame is," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
But asked Thursday whether the timeline for executive actions could be pushed back, the president pointedly did not repeat that pledge.
Instead, Obama hinted that developing a federal response to the summer surge of migrant children across the border had hindered progress on the broader immigration efforts.
“Some of these things do affect timelines and we're just going to be working through as systematically as possible in order to get this done,” Obama said. “But have no doubt: In the absence of congressional action, I'm going to do what I can to make sure the system works better.”
On Friday, the Los Angeles Times reported that the White House was considering a plan that would delay the most controversial immigration actions until the end of the year.
According to a White House official, Obama could announce programs in the coming weeks to toughen immigration enforcement while pushing the most controversial steps — such as a pause in some deportation proceedings — until after the elections.
Another administration official told the New York Times it was unlikely the president would split up his executive actions, but would not say if the entire package might be delayed.
“The notion that we would divide up enforcement and the other recommendations is highly unlikely,” the person told the Times.
Such a move could help quell criticism from lawmakers — including vulnerable Senate Democrats who are fighting for their political lives — who are warning Obama against acting without Congress.
"This is an issue that I believe should be addressed legislatively, and not through executive order," Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) told the Wall Street Journal.
Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.), another vulnerable Democrat, said although he was also frustrated by partisanship in Washington, "that doesn't give the president carte blanche authority to sidestep Congress when he doesn't get his way."
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Gang of Eight that developed the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill, sent a letter to the president this week warning that an executive action would "close the door to any chance of making progress on immigration reform for the foreseeable future."
Delaying broader executive action could also allow lawmakers to try again on immigration reform legislation during the lame-duck session after the elections.
"I don’t think anybody thinks that Congress is going to act in the short term, but hope springs eternal that after the midterm elections they may act," Obama said Thursday.
Asked about reports of the two-step plan on Friday, Earnest said that speculation was "putting the cart before the horse."
"The president hasn’t actually received the final recommendations from his attorney general and the secretary of Homeland Security for what options are available to him for acting unilaterally to address some of the problems of our broken immigration system," Earnest said. "So those who are speculating about how those recommendations might be implemented are a little ahead of themselves."
The press secretary also accused House Republicans, who had opted against moving on the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform package, of being the ones "who are making politically motivated decisions right now."
"The president is focused on trying to solve problems, and what the president would like to do is to have a legitimate fact-based debate about the current condition of our immigration system," Earnest said.
The signal of a possible delay from the White House is already drawing fire from some immigration groups.
America's Voice executive director Frank Sherry issued a statement Friday blasting the president's record "on promises made and promises kept in the arena of immigration policy" as "one of failure."
"Keep your promise, take action, be strong and have faith that leaning into this issue is the right thing to do — policy-wise and politically. Hanging back out of fear is what the Republicans want," Sherry said. "Taking action to address our broken and unjust immigration system is what the majority of Americans want."
Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), one of the staunchest proponents of immigration reform, says Obama’s legacy is on the line “in the next 30 days.”
“What he does is going to be the legacy of the president," he said on MSNBC.
This post was updated at 2:40 p.m.