By Alexander Bolton - 04/26/14 12:39 PM EDT
Speaker John Boehner has become increasingly isolated on immigration reform.
He wants to pass a bill, but can't get his House Republican Conference to get behind the effort.
“I think we should but the appetite, the appetite amongst my colleagues for doing this is not real good,” Boehner told constituents in Madison Township. “Here’s the attitude, ‘Ohhh, don’t make me do this. Ohhh, this is too hard.’” The comments, which were videotaped, went viral. Conservatives on and off Capitol Hill quickly expressed their displeasure.
Boehner has shifted from the message he delivered in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 6 when he blamed President Obama for the stalemate on immigration reform.
“There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws,” Boehner told reporters. “And it’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”
While centrist Republicans have backed Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), an influential voice within the House GOP Conference, is also pushing for action, conservative lawmakers remain highly skeptical.
Boehner's mocking comments about the doubters within his conference further hurt his cause. They could also cost him votes if — as he claims he will — run for Speaker again after the elections.
The main problem, according to Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, is that Boehner has failed to reach out to conservative lawmakers one-on-one.
"The problem is you have to win over the more conservative members. Many of them want to do something but the leadership is not talking to them. Boehner is not having one-on-one conversations and explaining why this is the right thing to do," said Aguilar, who has been meeting with lawmakers and their staffs on immigration reform for months.
Aguilar acknowledged that Boehner has reached out to Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), an outspoken conservative voice on immigration, but said that is not enough.
“They can’t expect to just use Labrador to get to all the conservative members,” he said. “I think that they should be talking to Steve Scalise [R-La.], they should be talking to Jim Jordan [R-Ohio], I think they should be talking more proactively to Trey Gowdy [R-S.C.]. They should be talking to Jason Chaffetz [R-Utah].”
Lynn Tramonte, the deputy director of America’s Voice, a liberal member of the pro-immigration reform coalition, agreed that Boehner needs to do more to convince his colleagues to move legislation.
“He’s talked a lot about it but there hasn’t been any action,” she said. “They probably want to keep talking about it to avoid being blamed for blocking it.”
A spokesman for Boehner said his boss has had meetings with many rank-and-file colleagues and found that distrust of Obama is the biggest obstacle.
"The Speaker has had countless one-on-one conversations with members all across the spectrum in our conference. No one doubts his commitment or seriousness on this issue,” said Michael Steel, Boehner’s aide. “The reason we can't make progress — in a common-sense, step-by-step fashion — is that the American people, and members of the House, simply lack faith that the president will enforce the law as written."
Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a pro-immigration reform group allied with the business community, said Boehner has emerged as the biggest booster in the House GOP leadership for moving legislation. She said the enthusiasm of other leaders is less obvious.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), for example, is unenthusiastic about moving forward before the GOP conference is ready.
“Just judging by the public comments, right now Boehner is the No. 1 who wants to get it done,” Jacoby said. “It’s always hard to read exactly where Mr. Cantor is, but he’s the author of a version of the Dream Act so it’s not like he’s against immigration reform.
Cantor has worked on legislation since last year that would grant legal status to illegal immigrants who were brought to the country at a young age. But Cantor has no plans to unveil the legislation, tentatively entitled the Kids Act, anytime soon.
The Virginia Republian was not receptive when Obama called him in mid-April to prod House Republicans to take up immigration reform. He issued a searing statement after the conversation slamming Obama for reaching out to him after delivering what he called a “partisan statement” that indicated “no desire to work together.”
“I don’t know where he stands on: Do it now or do it later,” Jacoby said when asked about Cantor’s timeline for moving immigration legislation to the floor.
A memo on the spring’s legislative agenda that Cantor released to the media Friday made no mention of immigration reform. It instead highlighted declining median household income, the need to replace ObamaCare with “patient-focused” reforms, legislation to modernize federal charter schools programs, and a resolution holding Lois Lerner, a former IRS official, in contempt of Congress.
Some Republicans have been vocal in their support of Boehner’s desire to pass immigration reform legislation as soon as possible.
“John definitely wants to do it,” said Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.). “I understand the arguments against it but I want him to know that when he does go forward, I’ll be on his side on it.”
King sent a letter to Boehner Wednesday urging him to pass legislation that would grant legal status to people living in the country illegally.
“I believe that a confluence of events makes it possible at this time to craft legislation which would (a) establish strong and real border controls and enforcement and (b) provide undocumented immigrants with the mechanism to pursue legal status and, ultimately, obtain citizenship,” he wrote.
But many Republicans think moving divisive immigration reform legislation a few months before Election Day could provoke a backlash among conservative activists that could hurt them in primary races or the general election.
“It’s not just Boehner versus everyone. On both sides you have these strong feelings. Some people are saying this isn’t the year but other people saying we really got to get to this,” said Jacoby.
“That debate just hasn’t been resolved,” she added.
Russell Berman contributed.