WASHINGTON — Speaker John A. Boehner, answering to his mockery of his Republican troops, returned to Capitol Hill on Tuesday with a different message: Any movement on an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws will depend on a new White House attitude toward Republicans in Congress.
But Republicans and Democrats, both publicly and privately, suggested that a narrow window for an immigration bill could open early in the summer - after most of the midterm Republican primaries - if Congress and President Barack Obama build cooperative good will on smaller bills in the coming weeks.
Meeting with House Republicans behind closed doors Tuesday, Boehner defended his performance in his Ohio district last week, when he called members of his conference babies who were whining at the difficulty of moving forward on immigration legislation. The speaker told his members Tuesday that he was simply kidding around, but acknowledged that perhaps he had gone “a little too far.”
“You all know me,” he told reporters after the meeting. “You tease the ones you love.”
But then Boehner quickly shifted the blame to the president, saying that Obama had lost the trust of House Republicans through repeated changes to his signature health care law, as well as through his promise to use executive actions to circumvent Congress whenever possible.
“The biggest impediment we have in moving immigration reform is that the American people don’t trust the president to enforce or implement the law that we may or may not pass,” Boehner said. “We’re going to continue to work with our members, to have discussions and to see if there’s a way forward. But the president has to take action himself. He’s got to show the American people and show the Congress that he can be trusted to implement the law the way it may be passed.”
Boehner’s allies said most Republicans took the ribbing in stride. But, they acknowledged, the House’s hard-core conservatives - many of them the most ardent opponents of any immigration bill - still could use the performance against the speaker.
“I don’t have a problem with what he did,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., a supporter of an immigration overhaul. “I know him. He was talking to his constituents. I do that all the time. You’re just kind of making fun of people. But you have a group here that wants to create a spectacle, who are only interested in their own self-aggrandizement to get on talk radio.”
House conservatives showed no sign of budging on their position that Obama’s executive actions - especially his changes to the Affordable Care Act - had made him an untrustworthy partner in the politically delicate task of changing immigration laws.
“The president has proven he’s not willing to enforce the laws on the books in a fair and equal way, and that’s really poisoned the waters on a lot of issues - and immigration is clearly one of them,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the chairman of the influential and conservative Republican Study Committee. “Our conference frankly wants to see the rule of law enforced.”
That position has kept the prospects for an immigration push bleak, even if Boehner wants to move forward. But there are glimmers of bipartisanship that could ease tension. Senators are combing through House-passed legislation to see if there are bills they could accept as-is, or could make slight changes to before passage. Bipartisan manufacturing and energy-efficiency bills are on the Senate docket.
A Republican leadership aide pointed to several smaller issues - a streamlining of federal job training programs, for instance, or future trade deals - in which the president might be able to work with House Republicans to find common ground.
Obama is in a precarious position as he faces rising pressure from immigrant groups to move on his own to stem the deportation of illegal immigrants and to take other executive actions, and Republicans appeared to be squeezing him on the same issue from the right.
Jeh C. Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, is expected to offer recommendations in the coming weeks to make the administration’s deportation policy more humane - and Republicans warn that any action by the president to ease deportations could undermine the chances of an immigration compromise with the Republican-controlled House.
The speaker “made it clear that there’s one and only one impediment to immigration reform, and that is the president’s unwillingness to abide by existing law, and so why pass new law when he doesn’t abide by existing law?” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La. “He actually doubled down today on our existing position, which is not to move forward until the president gets right with this.”
House Republicans also say advocacy organizations pressing for executive action are not helping their cause. Nunes said that he still backed an overhaul, but added that mass protests, hunger strikes and sit-ins in congressional offices were backfiring.
“When they started doing all those protests in August, I told all those groups, ‘You look like partisan hacks,'” he said. “It didn’t do the cause any good.”
An increasing number of House Republicans, however, are eager to push through an immigration overhaul this year, even if they cannot quite articulate a clear path forward. Last week, Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., sent a letter to the speaker urging him to “pass meaningful immigration reform legislation.” And during the Easter break, two Republicans from Illinois - Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Aaron Schock - released videos supporting some form of legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
The window to strike a compromise, members of both parties say, is dwindling.
“It’s got to be this year,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who has been outspoken in his support of an immigration overhaul. “If it doesn’t happen this year, it doesn’t happen for, I think, a few years.”
Diaz-Balart added: “I think you have more and more people realizing that status quo is unsustainable, is unacceptable, and are having the courage to stand up to say we are here to fix things that are broken, and this is clearly broken.”