WASHINGTON — Speculation about House Speaker John Boehner’s intentions in overhauling the nation’s immigration laws intensified Friday after he mocked the most conservative House members for thwarting his attempts to fix the system, shore up the borders and address the status of the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.
For Boehner, who expressed his frustrations at a Rotary Club luncheon in his home state of Ohio on Thursday, it was the latest in a series of bracing comments that Obama administration officials and activists said could be an indication he was willing to buck opposition in his own party and move ahead on immigration.
Steven LaTourette, a former Republican congressman from Ohio who is close to Boehner, said the speaker’s comments meant he was ready to push forward on immigration — or was preparing for retirement.
Boehner may have become “finally unchained and has basically had enough of this stuff and is going to be John Boehner again, which would be great for the party and great for the country,” LaTourette said. “Or this condo he bought down in Florida is going to be occupied sooner than anyone thought.”
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The Senate, with bipartisan support, passed a broad immigration bill last June, which included a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. But the measure stalled in the Republican-controlled House, where many conservatives dismissed the bill as providing “amnesty.”
Boehner and his leadership team in January released a one-page set of guiding principles on immigration, which included a lengthy path to legal status for such immigrants, but he was forced to abandon the guidelines a week later in the face of conservative opposition.
In recent weeks, Boehner’s exasperation has become increasingly pronounced. At a recent fundraiser in Las Vegas, in comments first reported by The Wall Street Journal, Boehner told guests he was “hellbent” on dealing with the issue this year. And Thursday, in his home district, Boehner allowed what seemed to be his private sentiments to spill into public view as he poked fun at some of his most conservative members.
“Here’s the attitude: ‘Oooh, don’t make me do this. Oooh, this is too hard,’” Boehner said in a high-pitched voice, his faced scrunched up like a child’s.
“We get elected to make choices,” he added, in comments first reported by The Cincinnati Enquirer. “We get elected to solve problems, and it’s remarkable to me how many of my colleagues just don’t want to.”
His aides rejected that Boehner was ready to change strategies. He still opposed, they said, a broad overhaul embraced by President Obama and a bipartisan group in the Senate.
“The speaker continues to believe we need step-by-step efforts to fix our broken immigration system,” said Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman.
As for the mockery, he added: “The speaker often says you only tease the ones you love.”
House Republicans, including Boehner, said Obama’s repeated changes to the Affordable Care Act and his State of the Union promise to use executive actions to circumvent Congress have eroded trust and made any immigration deal with Republicans increasingly difficult.
Privately, Republicans also said a broad immigration deal was unlikely in a midterm election year and the issue was too big and unwieldy to push through in the lame-duck session after the November elections. Democrats pointed to a small window of opportunity — June and July — when a deal could be reached, but they warned that it was rapidly closing and that Republicans had not made any serious effort to work with them on a compromise.
Boehner’s comments did nothing to endear him to his party’s conservative wing, which he has battled on a number of other fronts, including the “fiscal cliff” deal and the government shutdown last year. Rep. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, who frequently criticizes Boehner, said he was “disappointed” in Boehner’s remarks. “The problem is Obama, not House Republicans,” he said. “Speaker Boehner should have made that point instead of criticizing the people he is supposed to be leading.”
Obama administration officials declined to comment on the speaker’s remarks.
There were fresh signs immigration legislation might not happen at all this year. Majority Leader Eric Cantor issued a memo Friday on the legislative agenda for spring that did not mention immigration.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.