Boehner Stalls on Immigration With Focus on Obamacare

The House’s chances of passing a revamp of U.S. immigration policy this year are fading as Republicans say they want to avoid distractions from their focus on blaming Democrats for Obamacare.

House Speaker John Boehner, who said a week ago it was “time to deal with” U.S. immigration policy, said yesterday it will be difficult to pass a bill this year because fellow Republicans don’t trust President Barack Obama, whose term ends in 2017, to enforce the changes.

“There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws,” Boehner told reporters in Washington. “It’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”

A revision of immigration law is a priority for businesses, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which says changes are needed to boost economic growth. It’s also a major recommendation by the Republican National Committee, which wants to improve the party’s standing among minorities. Just 27 percent of Hispanic voters backed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.

Republican leaders in the House, where lawmakers have scheduled just 82 working days before the Nov. 4 election, are lowering expectations for finishing almost any broad legislation this year.

Debt Limit

House Republicans still must find the votes to raise the U.S. debt ceiling. A suspension of the borrowing limit, enacted by Congress in October, is scheduled to expire today.

Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew has urged lawmakers to act quickly to raise the cap, saying the government’s ability to meet its obligations will run out before the end of this month.

While Boehner yesterday blamed Obama for a delay on immigration legislation, many House Republicans disagree on what to propose and are wary of a debate that divides the party before the November congressional elections. Republicans need a net gain of six seats this year to win the Senate majority.

“There is no good time to do this,” Representative Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican and Boehner ally, said about advancing immigration in a Feb. 5 interview. “So Obama’s president. You going to wait three years to do this? Doesn’t make sense.”

Simpson, first elected in 1998, said he could be persuaded to wait on immigration legislation until next year to see if Republicans can capture the Senate majority.

“I could maybe understand that argument,” Simpson said.

Boehner’s Framework

Boehner last week released a framework for immigration revisions that raised expectations Congress could reach agreement this year. The plan offered legal status to many of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. without authorizing a new path to citizenship.

An immigration measure that passed the Senate with bipartisan support last year included a path to citizenship.

Boehner’s approach would permit 4.4 million to 6.5 million undocumented immigrants to gain lawful residence, according to a National Foundation for American Policy report. The Senate bill would make citizenship available to about 8 million immigrants, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The framework was welcomed by Obama and Senator Charles Schumer, the chamber’s No. 3 Democrat, though it dropped a number of the Senate bill’s provisions.

The loudest opposition has come from Boehner’s fellow Republicans.

‘Irresolvable Conflict’

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican facing a primary challenge, said this week there was an “irresolvable conflict” on immigration. Representative Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican aligned with the Tea Party movement, said an immigration push this year should cost Boehner his post as speaker.

“It’s a mistake for us to have an internal battle in the Republican Party this year about immigration reform,” Labrador told reporters Feb. 5, adding that the policy was “one of the first things we should do next year.”

Representative John Carter, a Texas Republican who was a lead negotiator last year in trying to find bipartisan consensus on immigration legislation, said his colleagues should wait until “the battlefield is clear.”

“In the heat of the battle is not the time,” Carter said in an interview.

The election-year distraction was the “toughest argument” from House Republicans opposed to advancing immigration bills, Representative Mario Diaz-Balart said at a Bloomberg Government breakfast this week. The Florida Republican is a proponent of revising U.S. immigration policy.

Record Low

The Republican Party’s favorability rating fell to a record-low 28 percent in October during a 16-day partial government shutdown that stemmed from House Republican demands to roll back parts of Obama’s health care law as part of a debt-ceiling increase. The Republicans’ Gallup poll figure was 15 points below Democrats’ 43 percent rating.

Republicans narrowed the gap to 10 points in December, the latest Gallup favorability poll, amid a troubled rollout of Obamacare. A majority of Americans disapprove of the health-care law, according to a Gallup poll released Feb. 4.

Asked about Boehner’s comments on immigration, White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday that immigration policies “take time.”

“There is a genuine recognition among leaders of the Republican Party that this is the right thing to do for our economy,” Carney said. “There is a strong conservative case to be made for passing comprehensive immigration reform.”

‘Keep Working’

Schumer told reporters he was “not thrown back by Speaker Boehner’s statement.”

“I would urge Speaker Boehner to keep working at it,” Schumer said.

Boehner said Republicans’ distrust for Obama stems from the president’s actions on the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the biggest revision to the U.S. health-care system since the 1960s.

Boehner said Obama could improve relations with the House by urging the Senate to pass a quartet of bills, including two that the president has said he’d veto. The bills would provide flexible hours to working parents, divert taxpayer funds now used for political conventions, provide job training and allow natural gas pipelines.

“The president is asking us to move one of the biggest bills of his presidency, and yet he’s shown very little willingness to work with us on the smallest of things,” Boehner said.

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