In his first press conference as House speaker, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan on Tuesday reiterated his stance that he would not be willing to work with President Obama on comprehensive immigration reform despite his prior support for the cause and polling that suggests it has broad support among voters.
Obama's decision to use executive orders to grant a three-year reprieve from deportation for undocumented immigrants who meet a certain criteria has made him fundamentally "untrustworthy" on the issue, Ryan said. The executive action, which Obama announced last November, has been challenged in court and has not been implemented.
Obama's effort, which would reportedly protect as many as 5 million people, has remained a source of considerable controversy — particularly in conservative circles — and has been stymied by the courts. Ryan, flanked by other members of the House leadership, said that "the president tried to do an end run around Congress ... to write laws unilaterally" and that Obama is a "president who's proven he wants to go it alone." However, many experts argue Obama acted within the scope of of his authority.
Rather than tackling immigration reform, Ryan said he instead wants to "go on offense" on issues he feels are more near and dear to the working families of America.
"We think the last the seven years have been bad years for advancing the American idea," Ryan said.
He went on to argue that his party needs to be "more specific" and "more bold" to prevent a viable alternative to the Democratic agenda.
However, this message stands in direct contrast to his own party's self-assessment following their defeat in the 2012 general election. President Obama drew 71% of the Latino vote, while the Republican ticket (which included Ryan in the VP slot) only drew 27%. The GOP concluded that a more aggressive push to appeal to Latino voters was not only necessary but vital to the future of the party, with immigration reform seen as low hanging fruit for legislators. When a bipartisan immigration reform bill, which had the backing of the president, advanced through the Senate in June 2013, there were high hopes that the House would follow suit. Although the more conservative members of the caucus opposed the bill, it had the votes to obtain passage if then-speaker Boehner relied in part on Democrats. But Boehner never brought that legislation to a vote, some have argued to deprive Obama of a historic victory, and now Ryan is refusing to step up to the plate.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Monday that Ryan's recent comments about the president have been "preposterous" and an example of “pandering to the extreme right wing of the Republican conference." According to reports, Ryan agreed to not pursue immigration legislation in order to secure the support of the staunchly conservative House Freedom Caucus, which did not endorse but also didn't block his speaker bid.
"We are in a generational defining moment," Ryan said, while underlining the fact that his caucus thinks the country is on the wrong track and that would continue if Hillary Clinton wins the White House.
The Democratic front-runner's campaign was also highly critical of Ryan's immigration position. "The extreme wing of the Republican caucus still controls the agenda in the House," Lorella Praeli, the Clinton campaign's Latino outreach director, said in a statement on Monday. "It is clear the stakes in next year's elections could not be higher."
Meanwhile, Ryan made it clear on Tuesday that the House should be focused on doing the people's business and not "who is doing what in a presidential election."
Ironically, Ryan himself was once a popular choice to seek his party's presidential nomination in 2016. After declining to run for the top job, he was heavily lobbied to replace outgoing speaker John Boehner this fall. After top contender Kevin McCarthy pulled out of contention, Ryan reversed his initial position that he didn't want to be speaker. He said Tuesday he was "humbled, honored, eager and excited," to get to work in his new role.
And the first thing on Ryan's agenda is a transportation bill, which he cited as a "good example" of how the legislative process was going to change under his leadership. He pledged to open up the bill to hundreds of potential amendments from both sides of the aisle, with an emphasis on "getting things fixed" so his party can "show how we can make things better for people struggling in America."