WASHINGTON — Just a week after Republicans raised hopes for a bipartisan overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, House Speaker John A. Boehner all but abandoned the effort Thursday, saying it would be "difficult" to get any legislation approved this year by his GOP majority.
Boehner's sudden shift, coming after his high-profile unveiling last week of Republican immigration principles that were partly embraced by the White House, left immigration advocates fuming and renewed speculation that the speaker's tenuous grip on a rebellious rank-and-file was slipping again.
It also raised questions about the GOP's effort to rebrand itself among Latinos and other minority voters, who largely abandoned the Republican Party in the 2012 presidential election, and many of whom see immigration reform as a top priority.
At a Republican retreat Jan. 30, Boehner proposed a set of immigration reforms that included legal status for the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally but no special path to citizenship. The next day, President Obama hinted that a compromise might be achievable, even though he had previously pushed for a special route to citizenship.
Boehner received a far less enthusiastic — and at times hostile — response from his own party's conservatives, who complained there was little value in engaging in an issue that deeply divides Republicans. Top GOP strategists warned that undertaking immigration reform this year would turn off the conservative voters they need this fall to retain the House majority and flip control of the Senate.
Conservative activists who view legal status for immigrants as "amnesty" flooded Boehner's office telephones this week. One group, ForAmerica, made an estimated 5,500 calls to the switchboard. Comments on the speaker's website were harsh: "You are a turncoat," read one.
Some of the more outspoken tea party lawmakers in the House renewed their threats to unseat Boehner from the speaker's chair.
Rep. Raul R. Labrador (R-Idaho), among the hard-liners, suggested that any moves by Boehner to bring up immigration legislation this year "would be a terrible mistake on his part, a political miscalculation on his part. And that's why I don't think he's going to do it."
At his weekly media briefing, Boehner acknowledged the opposition. "I've never underestimated the difficulty in moving forward this year," he said.
Some Republican analysts suggested Boehner's comments were an attempt to lower expectations on a reform bill while he shores up support among reluctant lawmakers.
The speaker is facing similar challenges rallying the House's 218 Republicans around a unified strategy in dealing with the upcoming debt ceiling bill. So far, Republicans can't agree on what concessions they should ask for in return for agreeing to raise the nation's borrowing limit.
Voicing some exasperation with his own majority, Boehner joked: "You know, Mother Teresa is a saint now. But if the Congress wanted to make her a saint and attach that to the debt ceiling, we probably couldn't get 218 Republican votes."
Boehner nevertheless sought to shift blame from his party and onto the White House. He portrayed Obama as a distrusted partner, especially after the president vowed during his State of the Union address to use his executive powers to advance policy goals on issues where Congress has deadlocked.
"The American people, including many of my members, don't trust that the reforms that we're talking about will be implemented as it was intended," Boehner said. "He's running around the country telling everyone he's going to keep acting on his own, keeps talking about his phone and his pen."
He added, "It's going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes."
Republican mistrust of Obama poses a dilemma for the White House as officials try to respond to pressure from advocacy groups on the left who want the president to use executive authority to reduce the number of deportations. Obama has said several times that he can't simply end deportations by fiat, as some groups have demanded. Outside legal experts, however, have identified some steps they believe he could take to limit deportations of certain groups, such as parents of young children.
Any move by Obama in that direction would inflame conservatives and reduce whatever slim chances remain for legislation, White House officials fear. Obama aides have tried to reassure Republicans that if Congress passes a new immigration law, the administration would enforce its provisions, particularly those related to border security — a GOP priority. Any move to unilaterally reduce deportations would undermine that message, a senior administration official said Thursday.
Boehner's supporters insisted he was not bowing to the grumblings of his hard-right flank, saying the speaker has tightened his grip since the tea party's ill-fated attempt last year to repeal Obama's healthcare law by pushing for an unpopular government shutdown.
More likely, they say, the speaker is hoping to push the White House to make more concessions as a sign of good faith in return for Republican support. He hinted that Republican opposition might soften if Democrats accepted some of the GOP-backed bills that the Senate has rejected.
One GOP strategist suggested that Republican distrust of Obama runs strong enough to derail any legislative action. Polling last summer showed similar attitudes among Republican primary voters, and Boehner's outreach to the White House could be seen as a plea to reverse that trend.
"Republicans are willing to move forward, but the president's got to instill some confidence that he's going to implement the law," said Republican strategist David Winston, who is close to party leadership. "The ball's in the president's court."
But changing Republicans' deep-rooted skepticism of Obama is not likely to happen quickly — or quickly enough to lead to the immigration debate that advocates and many of their Democratic allies want.
Republicans "either pass reform and get credit for doing so, or they get blamed for blocking it," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigration advocacy group. "Those are the only two choices."
"We have a problem," said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, which is trying to push Republicans toward the issue.
Boehner "created an expectation in the public and with the Latino public. We expect him to follow though," Aguilar said. "But if they don't deal with it, we will be handicapped, whoever is the candidate in 2016."