White House giving Boehner room on immigration, fends off pressure to act on its own

The Associated Press

FILE - In this Jan. 31, 2014 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington. As Republican leaders dampen hopes for overhauling immigration laws this year, the White House for now is betting that the display of GOP resistance is temporary and tactical and is resisting pressure from some allies to have President Barack Obama take matters into his own hands. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

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By JIM KUHNHENN and DONNA CASSATA, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — As Republican leaders dampen expectations for overhauling immigration laws this year, the White House is hoping that the GOP resistance is temporary and tactical, and it's resisting pressure from political allies for President Barack Obama to take matters into his own hands and ease his administration's deportation record.

For a president looking for a legacy piece of legislation, the current state of the immigration debate represents a high wire act. He could act alone to slow deportations, and probably doom any chance of a permanent and comprehensive overhaul. Yet if he shows too much patience, the opportunity to fix immigration laws as he wants could well slip away.

House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday all but ruled out passage of immigration legislation before the fall midterm elections.

White House officials say they believe Boehner ultimately wants to get it done. But they acknowledge that Boehner faces stiff resistance from conservatives who oppose any form of legalization for immigrants who have crossed into the United States illegally or overstayed their visas. As well, Republicans are eager to keep this election year's focus on Obama's contentious health care law.

Obama is willing to give Boehner space to operate and to tamp down the conservative outcry that greeted a set of immigration overhaul principles the speaker brought forward last week. For now, the White House is simply standing behind a comprehensive bill that passed in the Senate last year, but is not trying to press him on how to proceed in the Republican-controlled House.

"That news yesterday was disappointing but not entirely surprisingly," White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri said . "It's a difficult issue for them."

Vice President Joe Biden told CNN on Friday that Obama is waiting to see what the House passes before responding. "What you don't want to do is create more problems for John Boehner in being able to bring this up," he said.

The White House view could be overly optimistic, playing down the strength of the opposition to acting this year.

For Republicans the immigration issue poses two political challenges. In the short-term, it displays intra-party divisions when they want to use their unified opposition to the health care law as a key issue in the 2014 elections. Immigration distracts from that strategy. But failure to pass an immigration overhaul would be a significant drag on the chances of a Republican winning the 2016 presidential election if angry Latino voters are mobilized to vote for the Democratic nominee.

Making the case for a delay, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said there's "overwhelming support for doing nothing this year." Labrador, who worked with a small group of Republicans and Democrats on comprehensive legislation last year then abandoned the negotiations, said it would be a mistake to have an internal battle in the GOP. He argued for waiting until next year when the Republicans might have control of the Senate.

Democratic officials familiar with the White House thinking say there is a possibility that the House could act in November or December, during a lame duck session of Congress after the elections. That would require swift work in a short time. What's more, if Republicans win control of the Senate, there would be pressure to leave the issue to the new Senate.

If Republicans do well in Senate elections, new senators could include Paul Broun of Georgia, who shortly after Boehner issued his immigration principles said he wouldn't support amnesty for immigrants illegally in the United States. The issue also raises questions about what Republicans with presidential aspirations such as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida would do, given that the Iowa presidential caucuses, the first test for the GOP nomination, tend to favor the most conservative candidates in the field.