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Boehner: No 'commitment' to pass immigration reform

Speaker John Boehner's office denied he had made a "commitment" to passing immigration reform this year after a top White House official used the phrase.
John Boehner (R-OH) answers questions during his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill, May 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.
John Boehner (R-OH) answers questions during his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill, May 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.

A blow-up on Friday over whether House Speaker John Boehner had made a “commitment” to the White House to pass immigration legislation this year only ended up confirming reform’s tenuous position as both sides denied any deal had been struck.

Meanwhile, the fate of 11 million undocumented immigrants hang in the balance.

Boehner has insisted publicly that House Republicans are getting closer to consensus on legislation that addresses these immigrants' legal limbo. But one year after the Senate passed a bill that would have created a path to citizenship for millions of unauthorized immigrants, the House has so far failed to produce legislation that would allow even the most narrow classes of immigrants to remain in the United States permanently.

"If you want to kill immigration reform have Valerie Jarrett talk about a ‘commitment from the [Speaker] for a vote.’"'

The flap began when White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett told a conference in Las Vegas that she felt “very encouraged” about immigration reforms’ prospects in the House, either through a single bill or a piecemeal approach as Boehner has suggested. 

“I think we have a window this summer, between now and August, to get something done,” Jarrett said. “We have a commitment from Speaker Boehner, who’s very frustrated with his caucus.”

Republican and Democratic supporters of reform alike are working under the assumption that August is the hard deadline for action on immigration this year, after which the White House is expected to take unilateral steps to reduce deportations and House Republicans are likely to shift their focus to campaigning.

But while Boehner has said he personally is interested in addressing immigration this year, he has never committed to a specific timetable and has warned for months that his caucus may be too concerned about working with Obama to move forward. He even mocked members of his party last month for complaining immigration was too difficult an issue for them to tackle.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told msnbc that Jarrett’s claim of a “commitment” was inaccurate.

"Republicans are committed to reforming our immigration system, but as the speaker has said repeatedly, it’s difficult to see how we make progress until the American people have faith that President Obama will enforce the law as written,” Steel said in an e-mail.

Jarrett clarified her comments as well, tweeting on Friday that her words had been “lost in translation.”

“I said Boehner has made commitment to trying, not that he has made commitment to us or [a] time frame,” Jarrett said.

The issue is especially sensitive for Boehner as many conservative opponents of immigration reform are worried that he might move forward with legislation even if it means risking a revolt within his caucus. Any hint that he has a plan to suddenly drag reform through the House could trigger a backlash.

As Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, put it on Twitter: “If you want to kill immigration reform have Valerie Jarrett talk about a ‘commitment from the [Speaker] for a vote.’”

Even several hours after Boehner and Jarrett each denied any type of deal, the Tea Party Patriots put out a statement slamming the quote as evidence of a backroom arrangement.

“Speaker Boehner should spend less time making commitments to the White House and his Big Business cronies and start making commitments to the American people to do the right thing on immigration: secure our borders, enforce our laws and not reward those who enter our country illegally,” Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin said.

There are reasons why Boehner might still be willing to gamble on a last-minute immigration push. Republican strategists are concerned that Democrats will cement their gains with the growing Latino electorate if legislation doesn’t pass soon, jeopardizing their efforts to retake the White House. Business leaders and trade associations are also putting pressure on Republicans to reach a deal with Democrats.

“If the Republicans don’t do it, they shouldn’t bother to run a candidate in 2016,” Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue said in a panel discussion this week. “I mean, think about that. Think about who the voters are.”

Reformers also got a boost this week when longtime GOP strategist Sal Russo, co-founder of the Tea Party Express, penned an op-ed urging Republicans to pursue some form of immigration legislation that addressed the current undocumented population.

"I think conservatives have to stop standing and looking askance at people trying to fix a broken system and instead roll up our sleeves and say we have ideas that are better than the liberal ideas," Russo told msnbc.

Russo still thinks immigration reform is too much to ask for in the current political environment. He sees a narrow “March through November” window – after the midterm elections, but before the presidential primaries heat up -- where immigration might have a slightly better chance. He suggested Senate Democrats start making compromise suggestions to get the ball rolling rather than wait for the House to make a counteroffer to last year’s comprehensive bill.

By the time November rolls around, however, Obama will likely have issued new orders on deportation procedures. The administration is facing an intense pressure campaign from immigration and Latino advocacy groups to block removals for undocumented immigrants who have not committed a serious crime, especially if they have family members in the United States. But if the president acts on his own, conservatives will seize on the move as proof he can’t be trusted to enforce immigration laws and likely demand that GOP leaders abandon reform until he leaves office. 

“It’s a Sophie’s Choice decision,” Gabriela Domenzain, a Democratic strategist who served as director of Hispanic press for Obama’s 2012 campaign, told msnbc. “He has to decide who to protect knowing it will never be enough to satisfy advocates.”