House Speaker John Boehner, recorded last week mocking conservative GOP lawmakers over their opposition to immigration reform, tried to smooth things over in a private meeting with Republicans on Tuesday.
But some Republicans left unconvinced, saying Boehner’s actions could threaten his speakership and make it even harder to pass an immigration reform bill this year.
“He’s speaking off the cuff and speaking from his heart but he needs to realize that we are his team, we are his flock,” Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., told the Washington Examiner. “And he needs to be a good shepherd.”
Boehner last week told the Middletown Rotary Club in his Ohio district that immigration reform has stalled because of the reluctance among members of his GOP conference to support the legislation.
"Here's the attitude,” Boehner complained, according to news reports. "Ohhhh. Don't make me do this. Ohhhh. This is too hard.”
While the audience laughed, Boehner's act was recorded and went viral. It rankled House Republicans, in particular the sizable group of conservative GOP lawmakers who refuse to back an immigration reform plan that grants legal status or citizenship to the 11 million people now living here illegally.
On Tuesday morning, a somewhat remorseful Boehner offered his GOP rank and file an explanation of his remarks that was much different than what Rotary Club members heard.
Boehner told reporters after the meeting, “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.”
But some Republicans, like Salmon, say its becoming harder to trust Boehner because he has repeatedly made public comments that appear to insult the most conservative faction of the House GOP conference, a group backed by the Tea Party that has regularly bucked the leadership.
“I think he tried to clarify things and I appreciate him trying to do that,” Salmon said after Tuesday’s meeting. “But more frequently over the last several months the Speaker has made off the cuff comments. I think if he wants to keep our devotion and support then he needs to be a lot more disciplined.”
Boehner earlier this year criticized the House Tea Party faction for provoking last year's fiscal cliff showdown that resulted in a weeks-long government shutdown in October. Tea Party Republicans had insisted that government funding exclude money for the health care law, leading to a spending stalemate with Democrats that badly hurt the GOP in the polls.
In January, Boehner made an appearance on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and called the shutdown “a very predictable disaster,” even though at the time he publicly supported the efforts of his conservative flank.
Even before Boehner’s Rotary Club remarks, a small group of conservatives have begun quietly plotting a move to block Boehner from becoming speaker for a third term when the House holds the election on opening day in January 2015.
In 2012, a handful of House Republicans came close to mounting a last-minute attempt to block Boehner’s second election as speaker after he cut a spending deal with President Obama that resulted in higher government spending and a tax increase for upper income earners. The group backed down at the last minute, but some question whether Boehner’s latest remarks will prompt another attempt to oust him.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who is a staunch opponent of immigration reform proposals that include legalization, said Boehner’s latest public jab on immigration reform hasn’t helped his already tense relationship with his Tea Party faction.
“This has not strengthened him as speaker,” King, who is not among those plotting to oust Boehner, said. “If this gets to be too difficult a burden, it’s because he dug his own hole.”
But other longtime GOP members who have worked alongside Boehner for many years were content to accept his explanation on Tuesday.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who is presumably among the lawmakers Boehner was mocking because he opposes immigration reform that includes legalization, said Boehner tried to reassure lawmakers about his Rotary Club comments.
“I think he clarified all that very well,” Smith told the Examiner.
Boehner's longtime ally, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said while Boehner's comments were likely to anger some Republicans, most GOP lawmakers can relate to his portrayal of the conference, which because of the Tea Party faction, has been critically divided on key legislation throughout the 113th Congress.
“Most of us know he’s right,” Simpson said. “And the people who are opposed to him, they are going to be opposed to him anyway.”
Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., backs Boehner’s efforts to move an immigration reform proposal but questioned the wisdom of his Rotary Club speech.
“One thing every member ought to realize is nothing you say is private,” Bachus said. “You need need to be consistent in what you say to some group away from the Hill and what you say to the conference. Members like to hear it from the leadership and not from YouTube.”