House Republican leaders are sending their immigration-weary base a message: We hear you, loud and clear.
After one week of fierce conservative attacks on their pro-reform blueprint, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) signaled on Thursday that the effort was going nowhere fast in the House and preemptively blamed its demise on President Barack Obama.
Their message: Reform is in peril because we can’t trust him to enforce the law.
“I’ve never underestimated the difficulty in moving forward this year,” an unprompted Boehner told reporters during his weekly press conference. “The American people, including many of our members, don’t trust that the reform we’re talking about will be implemented as it was intended to be. The president seems to change the health care law on a whim, whenever he likes. Now, he is running around the country telling everyone he’s going to keep acting on his own. He keeps talking about his phone and his pen. And he’s feeding more distrust about whether he is committed to the rule of law.”
The Speaker went on: “Listen, there’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws. It’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”
The remarks echo a common conservative argument for ditching immigration reform. It’s is a sign that the right’s demand to jettison the issue of immigration this year is having an effect on Boehner, despite his support for reform and recognition of its importance to his party’s electoral survival in the future.
Cantor backed him up.
“I think the fundamental issue right now is there is doubt cast on this White House — this president, this administration’s willingness to implement the laws, given the track record we have seen on laws like Obamacare and others,” the majority leader said on the House floor.
The premise that Obama is end-running Congress and governing by executive fiat — though commonly argued by conservatives — is problematic. When it comes to executive orders, for instance, Obama is on pace to issue the fewest of any president in the last century. And, to the chagrin of immigration advocates and the Hispanic community, deportations have hit a record high under Obama, although that hasn’t appeased Republicans.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Thursday credited Obama with “helping build the most effective border enforcement that we’ve ever seen.” The president and his allies have demonstrated willingness to water down the Senate-passed overhaul if it means achieving a passable compromise on immigration reform.
Anti-reform activists intend to keep the heat on Republican leaders.
“Conservatives outside of Washington are in a verify first mode,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, the conservative lobbying group. “Their distrust of Washington is not erased by mere rhetoric.”
Notably, Boehner and Cantor weren’t specific about what the president must do in order to meet their conditions for moving forward with the effort. That gives them plenty of room to find reasons not to bring up reform.
A growing fear among Republicans is that bringing up immigration this year will divide the party and depress conservative voter turnout in the November congressional elections. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) predicted this week that the issue won’t be resolved in 2014. But some veteran GOP operatives warn that if reform doesn’t happen this year, it’s less likely to happen next year, and so holding off on it will doom the party in the next several presidential elections.
“It’s hard to predict the future with great exactitude, but I will tell you this: If we don’t pass immigration reform this year, we will not win the White House back in 2016, 2020 or 2024,” argued John Feehery, a Republican lobbyist and former aide to House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Pleading with GOP leaders to take up the issue this year, Feehery offered them a way out of their stated conundrum: Make the major parts of the law take effect after Obama leaves office.
For now, Boehner’s comments aren’t causing Democrats to give up hope.
“We remain optimistic about the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform in 2014,” Carney said on Thursday, when asked about Boehner’s remarks.