By Erik Wasson - 04/18/14 11:39 AM EDT
Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office on Friday moved to tamp down speculation that GOP leaders are preparing to act on immigration reform.
The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Boehner last month told donors at a Las Vegas fundraiser that he was "hellbent on getting this done this year,” referring to immigration legislation.
But a spokesman for the Speaker said the quote does not reflect any change in position.
"Nothing has changed. As he's said many times, the Speaker believes step-by-step reform is important, but it won't happen until the president builds trust and demonstrates a commitment to the rule of law,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said.
The spokesman said he could neither confirm nor deny Boehner had made the “hellbent” comment.
House Republicans have long favored passing border security and enforcement bills in an incremental approach to immigration reform and have rejected a conference committee to consider the comprehensive bill passed by the Senate last year. While some of the piecemeal bills have moved out of committee, they have yet to see a floor vote.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a top opponent of the Senate-passed bill, decried the reported Boehner comments and urged his party not to move forward on House companion bills. "At a time when trust in the President is at record lows, Republicans should not sacrifice their own credibility with such a maneuver. Such action would represent a colossal breach of the public trust: saying one thing before the primaries and then doing another thing after," Sessions said.
House leaders at their annual retreat this year released draft principles for immigration reform that included options for giving legal status to some illegal immigrants, but the majority of the GOP conference argued in favor of holding off on tackling the issue, according to lawmakers.
On Feb. 25, Boehner met with Obama to discuss immigration, and since then has consistently said that his members do not want to move forward because they do not trust Obama to abide by stricter enforcement mechanisms in any reform law.
“Every time the president ignores the law, like the 38 times he has on ObamaCare, our members look up and go, 'Wait a minute: You can't have immigration reform without strong border security and internal enforcement. How can we trust the President to actually obey the law and enforce the law that we would write?'” Boehner said.
Some conservatives skeptical of immigration reform grew nervous about Boehner’s intentions after reform proponent Rebecca Tallent, director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, joined the Speaker’s office in December.
Their fear grew after the release of the January draft principles, which stated that illegal immigrants could gain legal status “only if they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits).”
It added that “criminal aliens, gang members, and sex offenders and those who do not meet the above requirements will not be eligible for this program.”
Roy Beck of NumbersUSA, an immigration reduction organization, said Boehner’s comments at the fundraiser show the Speaker wants to move an “amnesty bill” and would do so if grassroots opponents let their guard down.
“It is not really possible for me to trust him less on this issue,” Beck said. “It is not just the Tea Party, it is much wider cross-section, they just feel that the leadership wants things very different than what the working class wants.”
Beck said that even though Boehner wants to do a bill, he remains confident that he is not willing to commit “political suicide” by bringing up legislation that does not have support from the majority of the GOP conference.
“I think we will get through this year ok,” Beck said.
Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), said he's suspicious of the Speaker's comment.
"Boehner's blowing wind up someone's skirt, either that of the voters or the donors. The fact that his spokesman didn't dispute the 'hellbent' comment (despite all the "chill out", "nothing's changed" stuff) suggests to me it's the voters Boehner's trying to fool," Krikorian wrote in an email.
Democrats have been working for months to pressure GOP leaders into moving forward on an overhaul of the immigration system.
Obama earlier this week released a statement that blasted them for "seemingly preferring the status quo of a broken immigration system over meaningful reform."
The president later called House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to prod him on the issue. After the call, Cantor ripped the president for releasing “a partisan statement” that indicated “no desire to work together” on immigration.
“I hope the president can stop his partisan messaging and begin to seriously work with Congress to address the issues facing working middle class Americans that are struggling to make ends meet in this economy,” Cantor said.
This story was last updated at 3:07 p.m.