Boehner sees himself as a problem-solver and has long supported overhauling an immigration system many experts view as broken. Reformers were hopeful that, in the wake of the government shutdown and with the speaker eyeing a possible post-election retirement, he would move forward despite strong opposition from conservatives.
But Republicans close to Boehner say the speaker never intended to risk a civil war within his caucus over an issue that is not a top priority for most Americans. His plan was to move the ball forward as much as possible while putting House Republicans on the record as pro-reform. Even that incremental push faced a wave of resistance from the party’s rank-and-file.
Those familiar with Boehner’s strategy say he never forgot that any missteps could put the GOP House majority in jeopardy and endanger prospects for taking the Senate.
“There's a lot of talk among the Tea Party folks out there that he's cut some secret deal, that he sold out. That's not true,” said a House Republican last week, shortly before Boehner slammed the brakes on immigration reform.
“I think he wants to force the discussion because he thinks it’s helpful to our party to have the discussion. I think there’s a small number in our conference who need to be able to go home and say we’re having the discussion,” the lawmaker continued. “We’re not going to have a bill.”
Boehner supporters say the speaker was sincere about addressing immigration, but had little leeway within his divided caucus.
“He's a pragmatist and he's probably trying to define what the limits of the possible are here,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a Boehner ally, told the Washington Examiner last week.
“It’s not to his advantage to overplay [his] hand,” he added. “I know he does not want to divide our conference but he does want to address what he sees as a big national issue.”
Last Thursday, a day after Cole made those remarks, Boehner told reporters that immigration reform was unlikely to pass before the November midterms. The announcement came exactly one week after House Republican leaders had unveiled a set of immigration reform principles to guide debate.
Boehner blamed his decision on President Obama, saying that Republicans did not trust the White House to enforce border security measures critical to conservatives.
Republicans cite Obama's multiple delays to provisions of the Affordable Care Act -- his signature achievement -- and his vow to use executive actions to bypass Congress. GOP lawmakers say that distrust is a very real concern as they ponder their next move on immigration.
But others say worries about executive overreach and selective enforcement have been percolating for months and that Boehner mistimed his push on immigration reform.
Boehner’s plan was to get House Republicans to raise the debt ceiling before seeing what he could accomplish on immigration. That meant the House was unlikely to act on immigration until March at the earliest.
House GOP leaders though unveiled their immigration-reform principles in late January and the resistance among the rank-and-file was more fierce than Boehner’s leadership team expected.
Some lawmakers said Boehner’s timing threatened their 2014 electoral prospects, distracting the public’s attention from Obamacare and Democratic woes just as Republicans were recovering from the October government shutdown.
Other Republicans were staunchly opposed to leadership endorsing a pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants and citizenship for those brought to the U.S. as children.
Ultimately, Boehner-as-political-pragmatist trumped Boehner-as-fixer, and the speaker was forced to throw in the towel once his caucus reached a boiling point — but much sooner than anyone expected.
Some Republicans who support pursuing immigration reform this year insist that Boehner has left the door open. Many lawmakers are continuing to work on legislation that was already underway.
But the speaker made clear in his remarks last week that he was putting the brakes on reform, and was unlikely to resume the effort before the November elections.
“We are going to continue to discuss this issue with our members,” Boehner said. “But I think the president's going to have to demonstrate to the American people and to my colleagues that he can be trusted to enforce the law as it is written.”
“It's going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes,” he added.
Chief Congressional Correspondent Susan Ferrechio contributed to this report.