WASHINGTON – As Republican leaders dampen expectations for overhauling immigration laws this year, the White House is hoping that the GOP resistance is temporary and tactical, and it's resisting pressure from some political allies for President Barack Obama to take matters into his own hands and ease his administration's deportation record.
For a president looking for a legacy piece of legislation, the current state of the immigration debate represents a high wire act. He could act alone to slow deportations, and probably doom any chance of a permanent and comprehensive overhaul. Yet if he shows too much patience, the opportunity to fix immigration laws as he wants could well slip away.
House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday all but ruled out passage of immigration legislation before the fall midterm elections, saying Republicans had trouble trusting that Obama would implement all aspects of an immigration law.
White House officials say they believe Boehner ultimately wants to get it done. But they acknowledge that Boehner faces stiff resistance from conservatives who oppose any form of legalization for immigrants who have crossed into the United States illegally or overstayed their visas. As well, Republicans are eager to keep this election year's focus on Obama's contentious health care law.
Obama is willing to give Boehner space to operate and to tamp down the conservative outcry that greeted a set of immigration overhaul principles the speaker brought forward last week. For now, the White House is simply standing behind a comprehensive bill that passed in the Senate last year, but is not trying to press Boehner on how to proceed in the Republican-controlled House.
"That news yesterday was disappointing but not entirely surprisingly," White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri said . "It's a difficult issue for them."
Vice President Joe Biden told CNN on Friday that Obama is waiting to see what the House passes before responding. "What you don't want to do is create more problems for John Boehner in being able to bring this up," he said.
The White House view could be overly optimistic, playing down the strength of the opposition to acting this year.
For Republicans the immigration issue poses two political challenges. In the short-term, it displays intra-party divisions when they want to use their unified opposition to the health care law as a key issue in the 2014 elections. Immigration distracts from that strategy. But failure to pass an immigration overhaul would be a significant drag on the chances of a Republican winning the 2016 presidential election if angry Latino voters are mobilized to vote for the Democratic nominee.
Making the case for a delay, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said there's "overwhelming support for doing nothing this year." Labrador, who worked with a small group of Republicans and Democrats on comprehensive legislation last year then abandoned the negotiations, said it would be a mistake to have an internal battle in the GOP. He argued for waiting until next year when the Republicans might have control of the Senate.
Some Republican supporters of a new immigration law are pushing back. "I'm trying to convince my colleagues that regardless of primaries, regardless of elections this November, that we have an obligation and a duty to solve this crisis once and for all," Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., told the Spanish-language television network Telemundo in an interview scheduled to air Sunday.
White House spokesman Jay Carney did not criticize Boehner's talk of a delay, though he called the speaker's claims that Obama is the problem "an odd bit of diversion." House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, however, did not hold back, signaling that Democrats are prepared to lay the blame on Boehner and his party if legislation does not materialize.
"Republicans should be candid about putting extremism ahead of the good of the country," she said. "I hope that Speaker Boehner will overcome the dereliction of duty that is holding back his party and our nation, and seize this opportunity to work to enact the bipartisan immigration reform the American people need and deserve."
Democratic officials familiar with the White House thinking say there is also a possibility that the House could act in November or December, during a lame duck session of Congress after the elections. That would require swift work in a short time. What's more, if Republicans win control of the Senate, there would be pressure to leave the issue to the new Senate.
If Republicans do well in Senate elections, new senators could include Paul Broun of Georgia, who shortly after Boehner issued his immigration principles said he wouldn't support amnesty for immigrants illegally in the United States. The issue also raises questions about what Republicans with presidential aspirations such as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida would do, given that the Iowa presidential caucuses, the first test for the GOP nomination, tend to favor the most conservative candidates in the field.
The longer the immigration issue remains unresolved, the more pressure will fall on Obama from immigrant advocates to act alone and ease the deportations that have been undertaken by his administration. Since Obama took office in January 2009, more than 1.9 million immigrants have been deported.
"Inevitably more and more advocates will be calling on the president to stop and roll back the deportation machinery," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration group America's Voice. "It is a source of tremendous anger, frustration on the part of immigrants and their allies that Obama is deporting people today that would benefit from immigration reform tomorrow."
The White House insists the president is following the law and cannot act unilaterally to change it, a view disputed by advocacy groups.
"The administration has both the legal authority and moral authority to make changes that would reduce the pain and suffering in the community right now," said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. Such advocates dismiss Boehner's claims that Obama can't be counted on to enforce the border security components of a new immigration law.
Sharry called Boehner's remarks a "flimsy excuse" given that Obama has "deported more people than ever, that net unauthorized migration at the border is zero or less, that we've doubled the number of border patrol in the last decade to 21,000."
The White House has decided to leave that argument to the outside groups, unwilling to counter Boehner's allegation by drawing attention to policies that anger immigrant advocates. Administration officials point to recent bipartisan passage of farm legislation, which Obama signed Friday, and a broad budget agreement, as evidence that Boehner apparently trusts Obama to deal on other matters.
Follow Jim Kuhnhenn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jkuhnhenn