WASHINGTON — The already uphill battle in this Congress to overhaul the nation's immigration laws became even more difficult Thursday when House Speaker John Boehner cast doubts that a bill can pass this year.
After months of saying Republicans should get to work on an immigration bill, and just a week after releasing a set of principles outlining what that bill should look like, Boehner said Thursday that President Obama was to blame for the inability of his chamber to move forward.
"There's widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws, and it's going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes," Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Thursday.
That led some supporters of an immigration overhaul to question whether Boehner is expressing the true sentiment of his chamber, or torpedoing immigration legislation while trying to pin the blame on Obama.
"Republicans need to realize that this isn't about Obama. ... It's about them," said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America's Voice, a group that has pushed for an immigration plan to legalize the nation's undocumented immigrants for years.
Republicans have long been skeptical of an immigration overhaul because they fear a repeat of the last major overhaul, which was approved in 1986. That year, the nation's 3 million undocumented immigrants were allowed to apply for citizenship, but promises of a secured border were not met.
Now, Republicans point to recent executive actions by Obama as proof that he won't enforce any immigration enforcement bills they pass. He created a program two years ago that has allowed more than 520,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to have their deportation proceedings deferred. And last year, he formalized a process to allow undocumented immigrants related to military members to stay in the country.
Boehner said his rank-and-file lawmakers do not trust the president to enforce current laws, or implement a law as Congress intends, citing the administration's changes to implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the president's recent commitment to use executive authority to enact policy changes on a range of issues.
He said the president is "running around the country telling everyone that he's going to keep acting on his own. ... And he's feeding more distrust about whether he's committed to the rule of law."
Supporters of an immigration overhaul say just the opposite, pointing to record numbers of deportations under the Obama administration. They are so dismayed by his deportation record that many have stopped pushing House Republicans to pass an immigration bill and focused instead on getting the White House to slow down, or halt, deportations of undocumented immigrants.
"The argument that the president is not deporting enough people does not go over very well with the Latino community who has felt each and every one of the 2 million deportations (under his administration)," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., one of the leading supporters of an immigration overhaul.
Boehner's comments came two days after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., threw cold water on immigration prospects by saying there was an "irresolvable conflict" between the Senate's comprehensive legislative approach and the piecemeal approach sought by House Republicans.
"I don't see how you get to an outcome this year with the two bodies in such a different place," McConnell said.
The Democratic-controlled Senate passed last year a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration and border security laws that included a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
The GOP-controlled House has not moved any major immigration legislation in this Congress, but last week released legislative principles that reiterated support for a step-by-step legislative approach. The principles stopped short of support for a pathway to citizenship for adults, focusing instead on an ability to attain legal status.
Democrats said they were discouraged but not defeated by Boehner's remarks. "He has not said, 'I'm not doing it.' He has not said, 'It's over.' He has said it will be very difficult. It is —- he's right, I agree with him," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., an architect of the Senate immigration bill. Schumer said Republican mistrust of Obama is not a new development and that he believes there remains a measure of good will to move legislation this year.
"I believe there's a good portion of the Republican leadership who wants to do a bill," he said.
Boehner maintained Thursday that he believes Congress will need to act, eventually. "This is an important issue in our country, it's been kicked around forever, and it needs to be dealt with," he said.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said Boehner could move immigration legislation in the House if he partnered with House Democrats because "the votes exist in the House to pass immigration reform and his failure to allow a vote has thwarted the will of the majority."
White House spokesman Jay Carney noted that Republicans face considerable intra-party pressure to not act this year. "Look, I think that the challenges within the Republican Party on this issue are well known, and they certainly don't have anything to do with the president," he said. Carney added that the White House remains optimistic because leading Republicans have edged the party closer to finding consensus.
"I think that there is a genuine recognition among leaders in the Republican Party that this is the right thing to do for our economy. It's the right thing to do for our middle class. It's the right thing to do for our businesses," Carney said.
America's Voice said Republicans face considerable political risks if they choose not to act. "Do they want their vulnerable House members in Latino and immigrant-heavy districts to lose in 2014? Do they want to enter the 2016 election cycle, which is already starting, with the immigration issue unresolved and their party to blame?" Tramonte said.
However, Boehner's comments heartened opponents to the Senate bill. "If Boehner genuinely believes that this president cannot be trusted to enforce our immigration laws then that reason becomes the remedy and the job ahead is clear: Congress must immediately compel Obama to start enforcing existing laws and prevent him from further abusing his executive authority in the immigration realm," said Bob Dane, communications director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.