Boehner: No secret conspiracy

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday moved to reassure a restive Republican conference that he does not intend to risk his gavel on immigration.

Boehner told members he would not jam a comprehensive immigration bill through the House ahead of the November midterm elections, saying there is no “secret conspiracy” to do so, according to one lawmaker.

“He was crystal clear,” Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) said after the meeting. “President Obama is the reason we don’t have immigration [reform].”

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Boehner made the comments at a private party meeting normally dedicated to fundraising, amid intense speculation about whether he will stay on as Speaker for another Congress.

Questions about Boehner’s future have gone hand in hand with conservative fears, stoked by right-wing talk radio hosts, about a secret plan to move immigration reform, with some suggesting that a lame-duck Speaker might want to cement his legacy on the way out.

Boehner said he was only teasing when he told a Rotary Club in Ohio that many of his GOP colleagues don’t want to make hard choices such as confronting a broken immigration system.

“Here’s the attitude. ‘Oh. Don’t make me do this. Oh. This is too hard,’” Boehner said in a high-pitched voice.

“There was no mocking,” he told reporters at a press conference after a closed-door meeting of his conference. “You all know me. You tease the ones you love, all right? 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.” 

Boehner’s comments, and his clarification, went over better with some members than with others.

“I wasn’t bent out of shape about it,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a conservative who occasionally criticizes the party leadership. “If you know John, you know this is how John conducts himself, so it doesn’t really bother those of us who understand how he is.”

Mulvaney said he also understands that most members tailor their political messages differently when they are in their home districts from when they are in Washington.

But to another conservative, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), Boehner’s explanation was “inadequate.”

“I did not think the Speaker’s comments were reflective of the concerns of the Republican Conference,” Brooks said. “They were counterproductive to the Republican Conference. I’m pleased that he apologized for having made these remarks, but he really shouldn’t have made them in the first place, because they’re untrue.”

Brooks, serving his second term, supported Boehner in 2013 for Speaker but said his immigration comments were part of the reason he believes he won’t run again in January if Republicans hold the House majority.

“He is just not acting like an individual who is doing the things you would need to do to get reelected Speaker of the House,” Brooks said. “It might be the acquisition of the residency in Florida, it might be blaming the Republicans, his own caucus, for the shutdown, it might be blaming his own caucus for the impasse over immigration, it might be the rather salty language he has used to describe some of his own Republican Conference members, but you add all these things, and that’s just not the kind of conduct you would expect from someone who is going to run for Speaker.”

Brooks wouldn’t say if he’d vote for Boehner again, but said he would be “mildly surprised if he can get the 218 votes that the Constitution requires.”

Boehner has insisted both publicly and privately in recent weeks that he plans to run for another term as Speaker if Republicans retain the House, and has argued that his support within the conference is as strong as it has ever been.

But the immigration issue remains volatile, and members like Reps. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) have publicly warned that an aggressive push without conservative support could threaten Boehner’s position.

Asked on Friday whether his members took his comments as friendly teasing, Boehner replied: “Our members know me. All right? 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.

A House Republican leadership aide on Tuesday suggested Obama could rebuild that trust by working with Congress on other issues, like worker training programs or trade agreements, and that it would not necessarily take a specific action related to immigration.

Whether that’s good enough for the rank and file is unclear.

Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) gave Boehner a pass on his immigration comments but said it would take more than a few months for Obama to regain the trust needed to consider major reforms.

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 the president to enforce and implement laws as Congress intended, something Republicans say he has not done in implementing his own healthcare reform law.

Mike Lillis contributed.