By Russell Berman - 01/26/13 05:22 PM EST
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is voicing confidence in the prospects for immigration reform in the House, saying that a bipartisan group of lawmakers “basically [has] an agreement” after more than three years of secret talks.
The Speaker made the previously unreported comments during a question-and-answer session on Tuesday at the Ripon Society, a Republican advocacy group.
“I said it the day after the election. I meant it, and we’re going to have to deal with it,” Boehner said. “I think there’s a bipartisan group of members that have been meeting now for three or four years. Frankly, I think they basically have an agreement. I’ve not seen the agreement. I don’t know all the pitfalls in it, but it’s in my view, the right group of members.”
The Speaker did not name the participants, but he said they included “some of the hard heads on our side, and some of the people involved on immigration reform on their side.”
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), a conservative in his second term who refused to vote for Boehner for Speaker, has emerged as an immigration point person in the House GOP. A longtime immigration attorney, Labrador has spoken with other House heavyweights on the issue in recent months, including the new chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), and a leading Democratic reform proponent, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.)
“My theory was, if these folks could work this out, it’d be a big step in the right direction,” Boehner said. “So I would think you’d hear a lot more about immigration reform on the House side soon.”
The Speaker addressed the Ripon Society on Tuesday in an appearance that was closed to the press. The group sent out a video and excerpts of his speech on Wednesday, but Boehner's more extensive comments in the speech and a question-and-answer session that followed have not been widely reported.
During his 20-minute appearance, Boehner offered perhaps his most expansive outlook on the major issues that Congress is likely to confront at the beginning of Obama’s second term, including gun control, entitlements and tax reform.
Obama is preparing to launch a major push for comprehensive immigration reform with a speech in Las Vegas next week. Much of the spotlight has focused on the Senate, where a bipartisan group is reportedly close to announcing an agreement on basic principles for an overhaul of the system. That group now includes Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a potential presidential contender who laid out his principles for reform in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month.
Another potential White House aspirant, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), quickly signed on to Rubio’s outline.
Still, Boehner’s comments to the Ripon Society signal the most optimistic view of the climate in the House, the chamber where the last major immigration effort died in 2006. Since then, the House Republican conference has grown even more conservative, and Boehner said as recently as a year ago that action was unlikely in the short-term.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said that while discussion have taken place, legislation is not ready to go.
“Informal groups of members constantly meet to discuss all kinds of issues,” he said. “At this point, there is no such legislation scheduled for a hearing, let alone a markup, in the committees of jurisdiction in the House.”
The Speaker offered a much more critical commentary on the president’s gun-control push, saying it was “political pandering” and “not well thought-out.”
Boehner said the U.S. is “a fairly violent society” but that much of the violence stems from the drug trade. Legislation to restrict guns, he said, would have little efficacy.
“When you look at the fact that there are probably over 300 million guns in American hands, the idea that you’re going to pass some law that means something, I think is just not well-thought out,” Boehner told the Ripon Society.
The Speaker criticized the gun-violence task force led by Vice President Biden, saying that Obama should have appointed a commission to take a broader look.
“What I would hope the president would have done, would be to assemble some kind of blue-ribbon panel of people who would look at the source of the problem, look at the violent nature of our society, maybe draw some conclusions about why that is, and then from there, take some reasoned steps, to determine what is it we can do,” Boehner said.
“You can pass some assault weapon ban or some other thing, and politically it may sound good to some people, but all you’re doing is giving people some false sense of security,” he continued. “You’re not really dealing with it in an honest way.”
The Speaker also dismissed the executive orders that Obama signed, saying they merely designed to boost enforcement of laws “that we’re supposed to be enforcing now.”
“It was nothing new,” he said. “It was all political pandering. So I would hope as we do hearings and try to get to the bottom of this, we would do it in a more thoughtful and serious way.”
Boehner has said the House’s top priority in the next several months is dealing with deficits and the debt. He announced this week that Republicans would advance a budget that balances within 10 years. In his appearance at the Ripon Society, he also suggested the House would offer a more specific proposal on entitlement spending reforms after it acts on a budget resolution in April.
“There’s a very big menu [of entitlement reform proposals]. The question is, what are people willing to do?” Boehner said. “The House, at some point here in the next couple months, is likely to move – after we move a budget – likely to move a spending reform bill.”
He said he could not specifically what would be included in the bill. House action on tax reform – a longstanding GOP priority – is more uncertain, Boehner suggested.
He said there was “a big debate” under way about “whether we should even go down this path.”
“I got some [members] that do, some that don’t,” he said. “Some [members] that wonder, ‘gee what kind of tax reform can we ever get signed into law considering the position of our president?’ And so that debate is just beginning. It’ll probably grow, and I’m sure you’ll read all about it.”
The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), is in the group pushing for action. He has been holding tax reform hearings for two years and said in a speech after the November election that his committee would pass legislation to overhaul the tax code regardless of whether Obama joins the effort.
“The Ways and Means Committee will write, act on and pass comprehensive tax reform legislation in 2013. Let me repeat that: we intend to move a comprehensive tax reform bill in 2013 – no matter what,” Camp said late last year.