At his weekly press conference Thursday, John Boehner threw cold water on the idea of immigration reform happening this year. "There's widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws," Boehner said. "And it's going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes."
That frank assessment came roughly a week after House Republicans put out a series of principles on immigration reform that included a pathway to legal status, an announcement that made the possibility of genuine immigration reform seem more likely than it had previously been.
So, what gives? How is Boehner part of touting a series of principles likely to win widespread bipartisan support one week and then insisting that the chances of any legislation passing are extremely small the next?
According to a senior Boehner ally, it's all about trust. As in, House Republicans don't trust that President Obama to implement the border enforcement principles that they view as sine qua non for any other reforms of the country's immigration system. "They fear the president is not willing to enforce the law," the source said. "That's been exacerbated by this pen and phone public relations push." The source added that the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has also raised doubts among Republicans as to the Obama Administration's efficacy on enforcement.
The truth of the matter is that immigration reform -- no matter what Boehner, President Obama or anyone else said -- always had a very tough path to passage in the House. (We lay out the reasons why here.) Boehner knows (and has known) this. And, it seems to us, he is up to a few things here.
1. The "it's looking up" followed by the "it's looking down" rhetoric by Boehner is an acknowledgment of the deep divisions both within his GOP conference and within the party more generally on immigration. The conservative base -- and many rank and file lawmakers -- do not feel any particular urgency to get immigration reform done. Many of them don't believe it's the right policy while others simply question why it should be taken up now. The party's elites -- strategists, major donors, candidates with an eye on winning a general election in 2016 -- believe that passing some sort of immigration bill is a must if the GOP wants to start addressing its problems in the Hispanic community. (Mitt Romney won 27 percent of the Latino vote in 2012.) To keep even the narrow possibility of immigration reform alive, Boehner needs to tack between these poles.
2. The debt ceiling strategy is intertwined with what Boehner says and how he says it on immigration. Boehner and the Republican leadership have tried a series of proposals -- attach Keystone approval to it, repeal risk corridors in the ACA -- designed to entice Republicans to get behind a debt ceiling increase. None of them have worked. And, with the White House holding the line on not negotiating over the debt ceiling, Boehner seems -- at least at the moment -- left with one option: Pass a clean debt ceiling increase with the votes of Democrats. To do so will enrage some of his conference's most conservative members and so Boehner may well be moving in their direction, rhetorically at least, on immigration in order to quell a rebellion within his ranks.
3. Making President Obama the issue is never a bad thing for a Republican Speaker who wants to keep his job. If the narrow window to pass immigration reform closes entirely sometime between now and November, Boehner has now created a perfect political scapegoat on which to blame things. Look, President Obama never was willing to build the relationships with my members I told him he needed to, Boehner will now be able to tell both his conference and conservative Republican activists across the country. And, those folks are already more than willing to believe that narrative.
Immigration reform isn't dead -- yet. But Boehner's assessment of its chances on Thursday are what sharp political minds have known all along: It's a triple bank shot (or a Triple Lindy). Possible, but far from likely.