WASHINGTON - House Speaker John Boehner drew criticism from left and right Friday over comments mocking his own Republican lawmakers for their reluctance to take up immigration legislation, rekindling election-year debate on the contentious issue even as President Barack Obama weighs acting on his own.
Boehner said at a Rotary Club lunch at home in Ohio Thursday that House Republicans don't have the appetite to deal with immigration because it's too tough. He imitated them whining in protest, "'Ohh don't make me do this, ohh this is too hard.'"
Latino advocates and Capitol Hill Democrats responded with derision, saying it's Boehner's job as leader of the House to bring the issue to a vote, not to blame others. "He's acting like he's not the speaker of the House," said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America's Voice, an immigration advocacy group.
Some conservatives also were not amused.
"If he wants the Republican Conference to follow him on this issue, he needs to stand up for House Republicans, instead of catering to the media and special interest groups," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who's been a leading voice in the House on immigration. "The problem is Obama, not House Republicans."
Boehner's comments come as comprehensive immigration legislation remains stalled in the House 10 months after Senate passage and election-year pressure grows on Obama to take steps on his own to stem deportations and address the estimated 11 million immigrants living in this country illegally.
Even while ordering up a review by his Homeland Security secretary on how to improve the nation's deportations policy, Obama has sought to keep the pressure on the House for at least awhile longer. Boehner has previously cautioned that any executive action by Obama would poison whatever chances remain for bipartisan cooperation on immigration.
But Boehner's staff downplayed the speaker's comments, saying they were not meant to send a signal and that the speaker has said similar things before in private settings.
"As the speaker often says to his colleagues, you only tease the ones you love," said spokesman Brendan Buck.
In fact, Boehner has repeatedly blamed Obama for inaction on immigration reform, saying he's destroyed trust with Republicans through executive action on other fronts. That made Boehner's Thursday comments blaming the House GOP more notable.
Under fire Friday Boehner's office once again retrained the focus on Obama. "As the speaker has said many times, he believes step-by-step reform is important, but it won't happen until the president builds trust and demonstrates a commitment to the rule of law," said Buck.
There were fresh signs it might not happen at all this year. Majority Leader Eric Cantor issued a memo Friday on the legislative agenda for spring that made no mention of immigration.