It was a significant shift: Boehner's original pitch was that Republicans must enact reform to force President Barack Obama to secure the border. Now he's saying reform is in peril because Obama can't be trusted to enforce the law.
And he's taking fire from all sides.
"[T]he response from the anti-reform right was so intense that he emerged at the Capitol on Thursday to more or less declare that nothing will happen on immigration this year," lamented the Wall Street Journal editorial board, a bastion of pro-business conservative thought. "So great is the House GOP fear of a talk-radio backlash that it won't even pass smaller bills that 75% of Republicans agree on. ... [I]mmigration reform is strangled by Republicans dancing to talk radio."
Meanwhile, the tea party-aligned Heritage Foundation's released a web video on Friday in which one of its top scholars, Derrick Morgan, argued that "for a lot of reasons, Republicans don't have a lot of reason to do anything on immigration reform this year." He echoed Boehner's critique of Obama's ostensible lawlessness.
Obama is a convenient piñata for Republican leaders as they waffle on the issue. But he's not their real problem -- he has overseen unprecedented deportations, a surge in border security and has relatively few executive orders. And if that were the primary concern, there's a way around it: Make the major provisions of the law take effect after Obama leaves office. Boehner's real problem, as studies suggest, is that tea party voters (who are essential to the GOP base) are uneasy with the changing demographics of the country and see reform -- particularly legalization for people living here illegally -- as an existential threat to the United States.
Boehner hasn't officially slammed the door shut on reform, and his signals and intentions remain a subject of debate. Is he plotting to kill it? Or is he simply trying to soothe the conservative base off before gearing up for a push? People close to him say he personally supports reform. His actions paint a picture of a man who wants to get to 'yes' but can't seem to bring his party on board and is afraid to move forward without a consensus among conservatives.
What's becoming clear is that conservatives aren't going to be persuaded, and there appears to be no way to do reform without infuriating the GOP base.
Convincing skittish conservatives won't get any easier. For one, they don't want anything to distract from their focus on Obamacare. And Republicans worry that bringing up immigration now will demoralize the tea party base in the 2014 congressional elections. Indeed, strong conservative turnout helps in off-year elections but there aren't enough of them to keep the party competitive on the presidential stage. Pro-reform Hispanic voters are growing at a much faster rate. If immigration fails this year, it's a tougher sell next year, in part because it'll force the Senate -- which passed a comprehensive overhaul last summer with 68 votes -- to start all over.
"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," warned John Feehery, a lobbyist and former spokesman for Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
For now, Boehner is all over the place.
"This is an important issue in our country. It’s been kicked around forever, and it needs to be dealt with," he said on Thursday. But "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."
There is no easy way out. Every option ends in deep scars. He isn't alone -- his deputy, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), has supported all of his recent moves. But the decision ultimately lies with Boehner. Success would be a legacy-defining achievement for him and make his party more viable with Hispanic voters. Failure would placate the far-right base and keep his speakership afloat. But at an extraordinary cost.