Republican House speaker sets confrontational tone in first post-midterms comment, saying the president will ‘burn himself’ if he uses executive action to overcome congressional deadlock
How GOP turned Democrats’ tactics against them
John Boehner wasted no time in flexing Republican Congressional strength following the midterm elections.
The Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner, has warned Barack Obama he is “inviting big trouble” by using his presidential authority to reform the immigration system, setting the scene for the first major collision between the parties after the midterm elections.
Striking an uncompromising tone at his first press conference since a wave of Republican congressional victories on Tuesday, Boehner said there would be “no chance” of legislation to mend the country’s immigration system if the president acted alone.
“When you play with matches, you take the risk of burning yourself,” he said. “He’s going to burn himself if he continues to go down this path.”
The White House responded to Boehner’s comments by insisting that the president was undeterred, and would pursue “common sense and substantive” executive action on immigration. On Wednesday, the president pledged to take that action before the end of the year.
Boehner failed repeatedly over the last year to persuade Republicans in the House to even countenance a package of immigration reforms that the party’s leadership believe is necessary. He was not drawn on whether he could guarantee a vote on immigration reform but said he would talk to his members in coming weeks and signalled his determination to revisit the issue.
“It is time for the Congress of the United States to deal with a very difficult issue in our society,” he said. “This immigration issue has become a political football over the last 10 years or more. It’s just time to deal with it.”
Boehner and Mitch McConnell – the Kentucky senator who will take over as majority leader in January after the GOP gained eight seats in the chamber – will meet the president for lunch on Friday. It will be their first encounter since Republican electoral gains reshaped the balance of power in Washington.
As well as regaining control of the Senate, Republicans have gained at least 13 seats in the House, where they already enjoyed a large majority. Boehner, who is expected to overcome any challenge to his leadership, will begin the 144th US Congress with the largest majority of any Republican speaker since at least the 1940s.
He promised to use that position of strength to push for a simplified tax code, reduce the national debt and repeal the president’s signature health reforms in the Affordable Care Act.
In a gesture to rightwingers in their party, Boehner and McConnell identified the repeal of Obamacare as a key legislative priority in a joint op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday.
Boehner has already allowed more than 50 House votes to amend or repeal Obamacare since 2010. He conceded at his press conference that another vote to fully repeal the law was unlikely to succeed beyond the House, but insisted there would also be separate attempts to seek smaller alterations to the law.
“Just because we may not be able to get everything that we want, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to get what we can,” he said.
The press conference, however, was dominated by immigration, which threatens a major confrontation between the parties.
A bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform bill in the Senate, which combined border security and provided a path to citizenship to the estimated 11 million undocumented migrants in the US, was passed in 2013.
But it languished in the Republican-controlled House and Boehner repeatedly failed to convince conservatives in his caucus to embrace even piecemeal reform.
Earlier in the year, Obama pledged to take executive action to overcome intransigence on Capitol Hill. He postponed the move until after the midterm elections under pressure from Senate Democrats who feared it would harm their chances of re-election.
The president is now under intense pressure from Latino groups not to break his promise a second time. This week the Democratic representative Luis Gutiérrez told the Guardian there would be a “civil war” in the president’s party unless he takes executive action before Christmas.
Obama is expected to somehow expand the reach of his 2012 action, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which shielded young people brought to the country illegally as children from deportation and provided them with permits to work.
Extending the order to other categories of undocumented workers could enable millions of people in the country illegally to emerge from the shadows. Analysts say the president is unlikely to move before the runoff election for Louisiana’s senate seat on 5 December, and that he may wait until Congress goes into recess about a week later.
“I think it’s fair to say that I’ve shown a lot of patience and have tried to work on a bipartisan basis as much as possible, and I’m going to keep on doing so,” Obama said. “But in the meantime, let’s figure out what we can do lawfully through executive actions to improve the functioning of the existing system.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Thursday reiterated the White House’s commitment to presidential action on immigration reform. “Yes, the president is going to take that action,” he said.
But Boehner suggested that the vexed issue of immigration would result the first major collision between the parties after the midterms. “The president, if he continues to go down on this path of taking action on his own, is inviting big trouble,” he said. Twice, he used the same “poisoned-well” metaphor adopted by McConnell 24 hours earlier.
“I’ve made clear to the president that if he acts unilaterally, on his own, outside of his authority, he will poison the well, and there will be no chance of immigration reform moving in this Congress,” Boehner said.
Both Republican leaders will take that message to Obama at Friday’s White House meeting, which will also be attended by the Democratic leaders who, in two months, will be in the minority in both chambers of Congress.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Boehner dismissed the suggestion he was “held back” in pursuing immigration reform by his restive caucus. Instead he laid the blame on exclusively on the brief spike in unaccompanied children arriving at the border over the summer, inflaming tensions.
“What held us back last year was a flood of kids coming to the border because of the actions that the president had already taken,” he said. “The American people, from the right to the left, started looking at this issue in a very different way.”