House Speaker John A. Boehner has emerged as the key figure of immigration reform legislation this year, and he has sent dramatically mixed signals about whether Congress will approve a bill.
At home in Ohio last month, he seemed to mock his fellow House Republicans by telling a local Rotary Club that they think immigration reform is too politically difficult. But returning to Washington last week, Mr. Boehner said the problem wasn’t his troops, but rather a trust deficit with President Obama.
Advocates and opponents of immigration reform now say they don’t know where the House speaker stands on the issue as time runs short before November elections.
“He has been very consistent with his inconsistencies on immigration, so nobody knows what to expect or what to believe on this topic,” said Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who has long opposed granting legal status to illegal immigrants.
He said talk of legalization is encouraging more illegal immigrants to try to enter the U.S.
Mr. Boehner replaces the president as the key figure on immigration reform. Mr. Obama long pledged to tackle the issue during his first year in the White House, and his political stock among Hispanics sank when he failed to follow through.
After the president helped shepherd a bipartisan deal through the Senate last year, chiefly by staying out of negotiations, attention shifted to the House — and to Mr. Boehner.
Unlike many others in his party, the Ohio Republican seems to want to pass a legalization bill.
Two days after Mr. Obama won re-election in 2012, Mr. Boehner announced that a comprehensive immigration deal would be a top bipartisan priority for Republicans looking to find areas of agreement with the president.
“This issue has been around far too long and while I believe it’s important for us to secure our borders and to enforce our laws, I think a comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I’m confident that the president, myself, others, can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all,” he told ABC News.
Eighteen months later, Mr. Boehner is trapped between that vow and the reality of a Republican Party bitterly divided on the issue. Many rank-and-file Republicans hope to push aside the issue in the run-up to the midterm congressional elections.
Those political calculations could be partly why Mr. Boehner has sent conflicting signals.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Mr. Boehner told a group of donors he was “hellbent” on immigration reform this year, but late last month told Rotary members that his own troops didn’t have the political courage to take on the issue.
After returning to Washington, Mr. Boehner said he was kidding. He said the real problem was that Republicans, having seen the president carve up his own health care law with unilateral exemptions and delays, didn’t trust Mr. Obama to enforce parts of an immigration law.
“The biggest impediment we have in moving immigration reform is the American people don’t trust the president to enforce or implement the law that we may or may not pass,” Mr. Boehner told reporters.
Republicans who oppose legalization say they are worried that Mr. Boehner will try to slip a bill through the House, even if it’s during a lame-duck session after congressional elections. Immigration advocates say they are worried the speaker will bow to political pressure and shelve the issue without testing the level of support.
Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, said she takes Mr. Boehner at his word: He is hellbent on legislation but leads a caucus with wildly divergent views.
Still, she said, the Republican Party has undergone a major shift over the past decade that Mr. Boehner is trying to nurture.
“Leadership has to do a combination of gauging that appetite and also press that appetite, to move it,” Ms. Jacoby said. “That’s what he’s trying to do. He can’t be way out ahead of them, but he can be encouraging.”
She said signs of Mr. Boehner’s commitment are apparent. Late last year, he hired Becky Tallent, who was a top immigration adviser to Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a longtime advocate of legalization. Then early this year, Mr. Boehner released a set of principles laying out a vision for immigration reform that included legalizing illegal immigrants, though it didn’t offer a special pathway to citizenship.
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who has been fighting for years for a legalization bill, said he trusts Mr. Boehner’s remarks to his home-state Rotary Club more than his rhetoric in Washington.
“I will always believe a man who’s home, in familiar, comfortable, safe surroundings,” said Mr. Gutierrez. “It demonstrates a priority that exists within the Republican leadership. They really want to get this done.”
Mr. Boehner has said he will move legislation only in pieces. He has rejected the Senate’s approach, which combined legalization, stiffer enforcement and a rewrite of the legal immigration system into one massive bill.
Mr. Boehner also has said he will not violate the “Hastert rule,” named for former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, who refused to bring up bills that didn’t have at least a majority of Republican lawmakers on board. Mr. Boehner has broken that rule but said he will adhere to it on immigration.
If he holds firm to the Hastert rule, opponents say, no immigration bill will be passed.
Yet they fear Mr. Boehner will try to orchestrate some votes by attaching immigration provisions to other bills.
“At this point, I don’t think it actually happens but I am completely convinced they are looking for and creating vehicles,” said Mr. King. “I’m completely convinced of that.”
One option would be to add to the defense policy bill a legalization provision for young illegal immigrants who agree to join the military.
Democrats have personally challenged Mr. Boehner on the issue.
“It’s time for John — he’s a good man, John Boehner — to stand up and other Republicans to stand up,” Vice President Joseph R. Biden said at a Cinco de Mayo celebration Monday. “It’s time for him to stand up, stand up and not let the minority — I think it’s a minority — of the Republican Party in the House keep us from moving in a way that will change the circumstances for millions and millions of lives.”
Mr. Boehner’s voting record on immigration puts him with the more liberal wing of the Republican Party.
He was one of just 17 Republicans to vote against a 2005 bill that would have imposed stiffer penalties against illegal immigrants and those who aid them.
At the time, Mr. Boehner said he objected to E-Verify, the national electronic system to check whether workers are in the country legally. E-Verify is voluntary, and Mr. Boehner said he felt mandatory use would be too burdensome for businesses.
Two years ago, advocates of an immigration crackdown accused Mr. Boehner of blocking a vote on a stand-alone E-Verify bill.
A spokesman for Mr. Boehner now says the speaker would support some form of electronic verification.