Topics: House of Representatives

John Boehner's double-speak rattles House immigration foes

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When it comes to immigration, many Republican members of the House have long distrusted their leader, Speaker John Boehner. Now, things have gotten even worse.

Boehner has assured members who oppose comprehensive immigration reform that nothing will be done on the issue until the Obama administration "can be trusted to enforce our laws." Given the average GOP Congressman's view of Barack Obama, that means "never." That's certainly how many members interpreted the speaker's words.

But last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Boehner, while speaking to donors in Las Vegas recently, said he is "hellbent" on passing immigration reform "this year." A lot of Republicans concluded that when Boehner is speaking to jittery members, his message is: Relax, nothing's going to happen. When he's speaking to fat cats, the message is: We'll get it done.

The report sparked an uproar, which in turn caused Boehner's office to hit the "Relax" button again. "Everyone can tell their editors to chill," Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck told reporters. "Nothing has changed. As he's said many times, the Speaker 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."

The reassurance didn't reassure. Team Boehner's response was "the ultimate non sequitur," in the words of one Senate GOP aide involved in the immigration battle.

"Most members see the leadership as being supportive of Gang of Eight-style reform," said a House Republican lawmaker who asked to remain anonymous. "We continually hear that once most primaries are over, the leadership will move forward with comprehensive reform."

"That's another one of those unguarded comments from Boehner -- every once in a while you get the truth out of him," said another House Republican, Rep. Steve King, who definitely did not wish to remain anonymous. "Every once in a while he slips up."

More than a few House Republicans believe, or at least suspect, that the speaker is getting ready to pull a fast one on them. They're particularly worried about a couple of scenarios.

In one, they fear Boehner and a few Republican allies might join with House Democrats to pass several separate bills that together add up to the bulk of the Senate Gang of Eight comprehensive reform bill. The content of the bills would be worked out with Senate Democrats; skeptical GOP members note that Rebecca Tallent, a former John McCain aide whom Boehner chose to be his top adviser on immigration, was not hired to sit around and do nothing. Once the set of House bills reaches the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid might bundle them into a new bill that would be comprehensive immigration reform in all but name.

Another gambit feared by immigration skeptics might be called the non-conference conference. In the past, Gang of Eight opponents have worried that the House leadership, again with Democratic help, might pass a limited immigration bill, and then appoint a House-Senate conference committee in which that bill and the Gang of Eight bill are transformed into a single measure that, again, looks a lot like comprehensive reform.

Now, some Republicans are taking that concern a step farther, worrying that Boehner wouldn't have to appoint a formal conference committee at all. He and Reid could simply hand-pick a small group from both houses of Congress to work together on a bill — and out would come big immigration legislation.

Of course, a large majority of House Republicans would oppose either of those maneuvers, and even attempting them would be political suicide for Boehner. He simply could not do that and remain speaker of the House.

"For anything to get done, Boehner's going to have to do an end run around the House Republican conference," says a GOP House aide. "He can only do that as some kind of legacy play, losing the speakership. It would absolutely torch — just set fire to the conference."

By some reckonings, there are perhaps 20 to 30 House Republicans (out of 232) who support doing anything of significance on immigration reform. But Boehner would clearly like to take some sort of action. Well aware of the conflict between his own wishes and that of the GOP rank-and-file, the speaker has been extraordinarily guarded about his intentions.

Even Republicans who are around Boehner frequently find it hard to get a handle on his plans. For every "hellbent" remark, there's another that seems to suggest the opposite. Boehner hasn't made any legislative moves since the House GOP "statement of principles" on immigration landed with a thud in late January. And as far as anyone knows, he intends to run for speaker again, should Republicans retain control of the House.

So no one knows what's coming, and suspicions grow.

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