WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday elevated his criticism of fellow Republican Rep. Steve King over King's suggestion that many immigrants in the country illegally are drug runners, calling the comments "deeply offensive and wrong."
Boehner already had issued a written statement earlier in the week condemning King's remarks, but at his weekly news conference, he ramped up his criticism even without being asked. The Ohio Republican took the unusual step of calling King out by name, dramatizing the concern among GOP leaders that incendiary comments from the right can tarnish the party's image even as lawmakers struggle to find a solution to the immigration debate.
"I want to be clear. There's no place in this debate for hateful or ignorant comments from elected officials," Boehner said.
"What he said does not reflect the values of the American people or the Republican Party," the speaker said, "and we all need to do our work in a constructive, open and respectful way."
Boehner also said that King's comments made grappling with immigration legislation more difficult, "but I'm going to continue to work with members who want to get to a solution, as opposed to those who want to do nothing."
King, R-Iowa, told a conservative news website last week that with respect to immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as kids, "for every one who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert."
The comments began to circulate widely on Tuesday, drawing condemnation from Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., other Republicans and numerous Democrats including White House press secretary Jay Carney. They've also already become fodder for at least one pro-Democratic political fundraising group, the House Majority PAC, which highlighted them in an email to supporters Thursday.
A small group of immigrant youths with the organization United We Dream, which represents people brought illegally to the U.S. as children, brought two cantaloupes to King's office Thursday and delivered them to staff members.
Several hours after Boehner spoke, King took to the House floor to defend his remarks and expand on them, though he did not directly mention Boehner's criticism.
"There are many, many young people coming across the border unlawfully who are smuggling drugs into the United States," King said, adding that "no nation like the United States of America can continue to grow and be a strong nation if we are going to judge people because they disagree with our agenda rather than the content of their statement."
"We should understand facts from emotion," King said. "We must not sacrifice the rule of law on the altar of political expediency."
Separately Thursday, King told reporters waiting for him outside his office: "My comments are anything but ignorant. They may have been the best informed in the entire United States Congress."
Despite his criticism, Boehner did not suggest he had any plans to take action against King such as removing him from the House Judiciary Committee. "I think I've made myself very clear when it comes to Mr. King," Boehner said when asked about such disciplinary steps.
Immigration legislation is in limbo in the House as Boehner and other GOP leaders debate how to move forward after the Senate last month passed a comprehensive bill with border security, visa reform and a path to citizenship for 11 million people here illegally. House Republicans have rejected the Senate approach and Boehner has said they plan to move forward in a piecemeal fashion with narrowly focused bills, starting with border security.
Boehner and Cantor also have embraced legislation to offer citizenship to some immigrants brought here illegally as kids — the subject of a hearing Tuesday where King's comments first came under attack.