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Is Boehner setting a trap for Obama on immigration reform?

Obama doesn't look like he trusts John Boehner...
Obama doesn't look like he trusts John Boehner...
Mark Wilson/Getty

Over the past few days, Speaker of the House John Boehner has started suggesting that immigration reform might be possible after the midterms — saying he could "absolutely" get House Republicans to vote for a bipartisan immigration bill.

But there's a catch. Boehner says he will only push through legislation if Obama promises not to take executive action this year. The White House had initially promised to take executive action on immigration this summer — likely to protect certain immigrants from deportation — but then delayed the move until after the midterms. Even that delay angered many immigration groups. Now Boehner wants Obama to delay indefinitely.

Obama's made Boehner a similar deal before, but in the end nothing ended up getting done. Earlier this spring, Obama delayed a review of deportation policy in order to give Boehner the space to pass a bill — and then Boehner barely even tried. Now the question is whether Obama will trust Boehner this time around.

In the meantime, Obama is facing Latino groups that are already frustrated with him for delaying action. On Thursday night, President Obama will speak at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's annual gala. The White House is already signaling that this speech is a big deal, because they know it's key to repairing Obama's relationship to one element of his base. But it's also a signal as to how he'll respond to Boehner's latest play.

Boehner: The House will pass immigration reform in 2015... but only if Obama doesn't act on his own

For months, Boehner had been pretty silent about passing an immigration reform bill, after semi-formally pronouncing it dead for the year back on June 30. (That's what prompted Obama to make the announcement that he'd be looking into taking executive action on immigration by the end of summer.) But a couple of weeks ago, Boehner started talking it up again.

At a think-tank speech in Washington on September 17th, Boehner told an audience member "Immigration reform would help the economy. But we've got to secure the border first...the sooner we do (reform) the better off the country would be."

By September 29th, Boehner was willing to bring up immigration himself during an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, and sounded much more enthusiastic about it (as reported by Roll Call):

"Big things in Washington take bipartisan majorities. Issue of immigration, only way to do it, and frankly the right way to do it, is to do it in a broad bipartisan way," Boehner said.

"And you think you can bring your party along on that?"

"Absolutely," Boehner answered.

Boehner made excuses about why the House hadn't acted this year, saying that the child migrant crisis made it clear the US-Mexico border isn't secure.

But the promise to get it done next year was noteworthy, because of the emphasis on bipartisanship — Boehner all but said he'd be willing to compromise to get a bill passed.

Boehner did say he'd only act if Obama promised not to take any further executive action on immigration, however:

Boehner also warned against Obama expanding his executive actions on immigration, which the White House has said he plans to do by the end of the year.

"That would poison the well," Boehner said. "And I've told the president this directly: If you want to get immigration reform done, and you want to get it right, don't do things that will poison the well."

The subtext: if Obama takes executive action on immigration before the end of 2014 — which he's promised to do — Boehner's going to walk away from getting a bill passed. And not only that, but it would be Obama's fault. (As it happens, when Sen. Lindsey Graham walked away from immigration reform in 2010, he said that it was because Obamacare had "poisoned the well" on further action in the Senate — so this is a term that's familiar within the immigration debate.)

Boehner has floated this deal to Obama before — and nothing came of it

This has happened before, however. This spring, Boehner made remarks about the need for Republicans to pass immigration reform. And so, in response, President Obama paused his ongoing review of deportation policy — in the hopes of giving Republicans one last chance to get reform together.

But nothing came of it. Even if Boehner was serious about getting his caucus together to pass reform in May, the GOP got scared by Eric Cantor's defeat in a primary election, and then by the child-migrant crisis. In response, Obama restarted the policy review in June — and broadened the scope of possible changes, including potential fixes to the legal immigration system.

Meanwhile, Obama's delay of the deportation review sent a clear message: at the end of the day, he would rather sign an immigration reform bill into law than sign a memo authorizing executive action. And, as he reminds reporters whenever he's asked, that remains his preference. That's because a law is more permanent, and Obama's trying to be mindful of his legacy.

So after Boehner made his comments earlier this week, Obama once again has to make a choice: will he reaffirm his promise to take executive action by the end of the year, or will he delay it again to keep hope of a bill alive?

Now Obama has to figure out whether to trust Boehner

That brings us to Thursday's speech — and the advance leaks about its message. According to Adrian Carrasquillo of Buzzfeed, President Obama is determined to reassure Latinos that he's going to take action once the elections are over, and before the end of the year.

Obama's speech isn't intended to be a reply to Boehner — it's an attempt to win back the trust of immigration advocates, who aren't certain whether they should trust the president's new deadline so soon after he broke the old one. (In fact, two of the more critical immigration groups are protesting the president's speech.) But the more forcefully Obama commits now to doing something after the elections, the harder it's going to be for him to back out of it afterwards.

And if Boehner is dangling the prospect of Congressional immigration reform out there in the press, and Obama is more interested in repairing his relationship with the base than with extending an olive branch to Republicans, that makes the situation right now very different from the one in May. It's a strong indication that Obama no longer trusts Boehner to hold up his end of the deal.

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