WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner told Republican lawmakers Tuesday he was just teasing them when he lampooned their reluctance to act on immigration legislation, insisting that he blames President Barack Obama for inaction on the issue, not the GOP.
"You tease the ones you love, right? But some people misunderstood what I had to say," Boehner told reporters after a closed-door meeting with the House GOP where he offered the explanation. "I can rib people just a little too much sometimes. This wouldn't be the first time."
The comments in question happened at a Rotary Club lunch in Ohio last week when Boehner said Republican House members don't want to take on immigration because it's too difficult. He imitated them whining in high-pitched protest, "'Ohh, don't make me do this ... ohh, this is too hard.'"
Some conservatives took offense, saying Boehner should be keeping the focus on Obama. Some Republicans say it's largely the president's fault that comprehensive immigration legislation, including border security and eventual citizenship for millions, remains stalled in the House 10 months after Senate passage. They say they can't trust Obama because of his record of taking steps by executive action.
Democrats, meanwhile, saw signs of renewed hope for immigration legislation in Boehner's comments blaming the House GOP, though Boehner's aides downplayed any such suggestion.
Asked Tuesday about Boehner's remarks, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, "I'm glad he's complaining about his members for a change so I don't have to."
In his remarks Tuesday Boehner put the focus back on the president. "I wanted to make sure the members understood that the biggest impediment we have in moving immigration reform is that the American people don't trust the president to enforce or implement the law that we may or may not pass," Boehner said.
With Congress back in session after a two-week recess, Boehner said that discussions were ongoing about a way forward. Meanwhile advocates continue to push on the issue, with more than 250 evangelical pastors descending on Capitol Hill Tuesday to call for a vote. But any window for congressional action this year is rapidly closing, and chances remain slim.
Boehner issued a set of principles on immigration earlier this year meant to guide possible action in the House, but the effort quickly collapsed after Republican lawmakers questioned the wisdom of moving forward in an election year when they aim to hold onto control of the House and perhaps retake the Senate.
Because of the dim prospects on Capitol Hill, Obama has come under extraordinary pressure to act on his own to stem deportations and address the 11.5 million people in the country illegally. The administration is weighing curbing deportations of people here illegally who have little or no criminal record, but timing on any such steps is uncertain.
Administration officials appear to want to give Boehner time and space to exhaust the possibility of congressional action before moving forward on their own.