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RNC chair: Obama throwing ‘kerosene’ on ‘fire’ if he acts on immigration

Reince Priebus, (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus warned President Obama Friday not to take executive action to allow some undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States legally, suggesting the president would inflame an already contentious debate if he does so.

Speaking at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters, Priebus said if Obama signs an "executive amnesty" order, he would be "throwing a barrel of kerosene on a fire."

On Wednesday, Obama renewed his pledge from the summer to use executive power to stem deportations of some undocumented immigrants before year's end. He has not laid out the specifics of his plan.

Obama has argued that since Congress has failed to move on immigration, he should take what actions he can on his own. The Senate passed a sweeping bill to reform the nation's immigration laws last year. A bipartisan team of senators spearheaded the bill, which included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The GOP-controlled House has refused to take up the legislation. Many House Republicans have expressed concerned about the citizenship provision, which they have dubbed "amnesty."

The immigration debate has divided the Republican Party. On one side are vocal hard-liners who oppose a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants. On the other are moderate Republicans who favor it and have warned that Republicans will continue to suffer among Hispanic voters -- a growing share of the electorate -- in presidential elections if they do not soften their edges.

Following the 2012 election, in which Mitt Romney won fewer than three in 10 Hispanic votes, the Republican National Committee commissioned a broad report about how the party should remake itself in the future. The report recommended embracing comprehensive immigration reform.

Asked about the report on Friday, Priebus said it has become difficult to strictly define what "comprehensive" reform means. And he distanced himself a bit from the findings, saying, "the report was not written by or somebody in our building," before complimenting it as a "great" report for the entire party to look at.

"Comprehensive immigration reform has sort of become loaded language because it means something different to everybody that you ask," Priebus said.

Reflecting on Tuesday's midterm elections, in which Republicans swept into power in the Senate, padded their House majority and gained governor's seats, Priebus said the takeaway is that "Republicans were given an opportunity to lead at every level." But he stopped short of saying the GOP won a clear mandate.

Looking ahead to the 2016 election, Priebus said it will "take a massive lift on the ground" for the GOP to be successful and keep up its fundraising and organizational success in a presidential year.

He reiterated his desire to create a more compact presidential nominating process with a limited number of sanctioned debates. The intent is to avoid a repeat of 2012, when long-shot candidates took advantage of ample time in the national debate limelight to attack the front-runners and surge upward in the polls.

"We're not going to have a 23 debate circus," he said.

Priebus said Tuesday's elections were not only a rejection of Obama, but of Bill and Hillary Clinton as well. The Clintons campaigned for congressional candidates including some high-profile losers like Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

Hillary Clinton is considered the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination for president if she runs -- a prospect Priebus was giddy about Friday.

"I sure as heck hope we're running against Hillary Clinton," he said.