WASHINGTON - Speaker John Boehner on Thursday all but ruled out passage of immigration legislation before this fall's elections, saying it would be difficult for the Republican-led House to act on the issue that President Barack Obama has made a top domestic priority.
In his most pessimistic comments, Boehner blamed the stalemate on widespread skepticism that Obama would properly enforce any immigration reforms that Congress approved. The GOP leader didn't mention that his own members have balked at acting on the contentious issue, which could enrage core conservative voters in the midterm election year.
"The American people, including many of our members, don't trust that the reform we're talking about will be implemented as it was intended to be," Boehner told reporters at his weekly news conference. "The president seems to change the health care law on a whim, whenever he likes. Now, he is running around the country telling everyone he's going to keep acting on his own."
Just last week, Boehner and other House Republican leaders had unveiled broad principles for immigration changes, including legal status for the estimated 11 million immigrants living here illegally, tougher border security and a shot at citizenship for children brought to the country illegally.
National Republicans see the failure to act on immigration as a political drag on the party after 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney captured just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, and they are pressing for action to moderate the party's image. The principles endorsed last week were seen as a congressional jump-start for an issue that had been stalled since Senate passage of a comprehensive, bipartisan bill last June.
But conservatives rebuffed their leaders and questioned the wisdom of acting this year, equating legal status with amnesty and resisting giving Obama a long-sought legislative victory. Republicans also worry about primary challenges from the right and fear that new Hispanic citizens will add to the Democrats' voter rolls.
Control of the Senate, Republicans say, is within reach, giving them hope for greater leverage in negotiations on immigration in 2015. But the year leading up to the presidential election could be a tough one for making progress since Republican candidates tend to move right to shore up support ahead of the primaries.
The latest unraveling on immigration came quickly.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who had advocated for action on immigration within his caucus, said this past weekend that passage of a bill was unlikely this year and cited distrust of Obama. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who faces a primary challenge, said Tuesday that differences between the Senate and House were an "irresolvable conflict."
On Thursday, shortly before House members left Washington, Boehner said, "Listen, there's widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws. And it's going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes."
Boehner said Obama has to rebuild that trust. White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed that demand.
"The challenges within the Republican Party on this issue are well-known, and they certainly don't have anything to do with the president," Carney said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she was willing to give Boehner time to succeed. Democrats could try to force the issue later this year, rounding up support to require a vote on the Senate-passed bill.
"Just knowing him, I believe he does want an immigration bill," Pelosi said of Boehner. "I do believe he does not want to be the speaker who says, 'I'll do an immigration bill as long as it creates an underclass in America.'"
The Senate last June passed a bipartisan bill that would tighten border security, provide enforcement measures and offer a path to citizenship for those living in the United States illegally.
The measure stalled in the House, where Boehner and other leaders have rejected a comprehensive approach in favor of a bill-by-bill process.
Boehner's comments raising doubts about the prospects for action on immigration legislation this year angered advocacy groups.
"I wish I could say I was surprised Speaker John Boehner is blaming President Obama for his own unwillingness to act on immigration reform," said Eddie Carmona, campaign manager for PICO National Network's Campaign for Citizenship. "The truth is, the speaker has, time and time again, proven that he would rather pander to the extreme portions of his party than work to achieve a bipartisan solution for an issue that impacts countless families and communities across the country."
Rocio Saenz, the Service Employees International Union's executive vice president, said Republicans have a choice: "They can pander to a small, extremist arm of the GOP and follow them into the political wilderness or they can do the right thing for our nation and pass immigration reform."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he didn't "blame Boehner alone. Because the Senate Republican leader threw cold water on this," a reference to McConnell's comments.
Members of the group of eight senators who put in long hours drafting legislation held out some hope for action this year. If the House fails to pass legislation, the Senate-passed bill dies at the end of the year, with the conclusion of the congressional session.
"I'm still optimistic that we'll get this done," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was "guardedly optimistic" because "there is overwhelming support from business, from evangelicals, from across the board people we represent."
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said Boehner was trying to blame his own inaction on Obama and pressed the House for legislation.
Though Obama has threatened to act on his own if Congress does not move on some of his other priorities, Carney signaled that Obama was not prepared to act unilaterally on immigration.
"There's no alternative to comprehensive immigration reform passing through Congress," Carney said. "It requires legislation. And the president's made that clear in the past, and that continues to be his view."