By Molly K. Hooper - 06/19/13 12:16 AM EDT
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Tuesday that he will adhere to the “Hastert Rule” on immigration reform and denied claims that he is for a “comprehensive” solution.
Boehner’s remarks seek to appease conservatives who have grown increasingly restless about where House Republicans are headed on the thorny matter.
However, Boehner was just referring to immigration reform legislation moving through the House.
Asked if he would bring up a House-Senate conference report on immigration that lacked the support of the majority of the majority, Boehner responded, “We’ll see when we get there.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has said he will not follow the Senate’s comprehensive approach, instead moving immigration legislation in a series of narrow bills. That committee process started on Tuesday.
The smaller immigration measures are expected to attract strong support from Republicans as well as some backing from Democrats.
A source familiar with the Speaker’s thinking said Boehner is skeptical that Senate Democrats will agree to tough border security measures needed for GOP support on any comprehensive bill. Republican support of the Senate bill has waned this week, though backers are predicting it will pass by a comfortable margin.
In discussing immigration with his conference, Boehner said he would bring up a bill supported by less than a majority of his conference only if he has no other leverage. Yet, he said he doesn’t envision such a “scenario” when it comes to immigration.
“The only time any Speaker allows a major bill to pass without a majority of the majority is when there is zero leverage,” said Boehner, according to a source in the room.
Boehner noted that longtime GOP Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) had to do this with campaign finance reform, and that former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) hand was forced on funding for the Iraq war.
He conceded to doing it a “couple times, such as the fiscal cliff and hurricane relief, where we had no leverage, and we faced a worse alternative — politically or in terms of policy,” according to the source.
“Let me be clear: Immigration is not one of these scenarios,” Boehner was quoted as saying. “We have plenty of leverage, and I have no intention of putting a bill on the floor that will violate the principles of our majority and divide our conference.”
“One of our principles is border security. I have no intention of putting a bill on the floor that the people in this room do not believe secures our borders. It’s not going to happen.”
A separate source at the closed-door meeting told The Hill that Boehner said, “There’s this narrative being written in the press and by Democrats and, quite frankly by some Republicans, that I am pushing a comprehensive immigration bill, and that’s just not true. I think this is a problem we’ve got to deal with, but we’re going to deal with it our own way not the way the Senate’s dealing with it.”
In recent days, conservatives on and off Capitol Hill have been pressuring Boehner to formally adopt the Hastert Rule.
Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) is leading the effort to collect 50 signatures from his fellow GOP members that would force a conference vote on adopting the rule.
Conservative Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) is not inclined to sign it, telling The Hill that Boehner has reassured skittish GOP lawmakers.
According to a source familiar with Salmon’s petition effort, the Arizona Republican has garnered the 25 signatures needed to refer it to a committee. It is unclear who has signed the petition.
Should Salmon collect 50 signatures, the entire conference would consider the matter if the referring committee does not act in a timely manner.
Such a rule change would “handcuff” the Speaker, says former Hastert communications director John Feehery.
“I think it’s insane to put your Speaker in handcuffs ... you need to give the Speaker the flexibility to do his job,” said Feehery, a columnist for The Hill.
A comprehensive bill in the Senate will likely pass by the July 4 recess. But that measure is opposed by many conservatives in the House who believe it provides “amnesty” without doing enough to stop illegal immigration.
Immigration reform advocates believe a strong bipartisan vote in the Senate would increase pressure on the House, a point emphasized by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday.
However, it is clear Boehner will be under pressure from his own conference not to bend to the Senate.
On Monday, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) argued that Boehner should lose his gavel if he moves an immigration measure without majority support, saying it would be a “betrayal” of the party.
“If Boehner moves forward ... and permits this to come to a vote even though the majority of Republicans in the House — and that’s if they do — oppose what’s coming to a vote, he should be removed as Speaker,” he said.
Asked by reporters if he agreed with Rohrabacher’s assessment, the Speaker considered the question and replied, “Maybe.”
Boehner acknowledged the concerns of conservatives about the Senate immigration bill being debated this week, warning President Obama and Senate Democrats to “get serious” about border security and calling the Gang of Eight bill “weak” on that issue.
“I’m increasingly concerned that the White House and Senate Democrats would rather have this as an issue in the 2014 election rather than a result,” he added.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), which does not have any Republican members, will meet privately with Boehner on Wednesday. House Republicans, meanwhile, will huddle on immigration July 10.
A leading Democratic advocate for immigration reform, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (Ill.), said the CHC would not necessarily pressure the Speaker to force a vote if he lacks support from a majority of Republicans.
“I don’t know that he can do it,” Gutiérrez said on Tuesday.
Gutiérrez, who is part of the House bipartisan group that has struggled to iron out a deal on immigration, said, “Here’s what I believe he can do, and I hope he will embrace: a bipartisan route on comprehensive immigration reform.”
He added, “There are more than  for comprehensive immigration reform.”
Russell Berman contributed.