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Inside Politics: Boehner says 'never mind' on immigration

By John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent
updated 9:55 PM EST, Fri February 7, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A week ago, House Speaker Boehner said he wanted to try to act on immigration
  • On Thursday, Boehner said it wouldn't happen this year
  • Trust gap between Republicans and White House won't close in election year
  • Immigration debate between House Republicans would give Democrats a weapon

John King and a panel of top political reporters look at the prospects for immigration reform in an election year on "Inside Politics " on Sunday at 8:30 a.m. ET.

Washington (CNN) -- Whatever you think of his politics, House Speaker John Boehner has a great sense of humor. So perhaps he won't mind the question framed this way: What happened, in the course of just one week, to make Speaker Boehner the Miss Emily Litella of immigration reform?

(If I have lost you already, take a moment and search the Web to understand the reference -- you won't regret it.)

"Never mind," was the trademark closing line of a character the late Gilda Radner made famous as a cast member on "Saturday Night Live." And "never mind," is what Speaker Boehner might just as well have said Thursday when he all but declared the immigration reform legislative debate dead for 2014.

"Listen, there's widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws," Boehner told reporters, suggesting White House executive actions to change provisions of the health care law had many conservatives worried the administration wouldn't feel bound by any immigration legislation passed by Congress.

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Citing that trust deficit, the Speaker added: "It's going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes."

There is without a doubt deep mistrust of the Obama White House in the Republican congressional ranks.

But is that mistrust any greater than just a week ago? Of course not, and it was just a week ago that the same Speaker Boehner said this of the same immigration debate:

"This problem has been around for at least the last 15 years, it's been turned into a political football. I think it's unfair, so I think it's time to deal with it."

To be fair, the Speaker a week ago was candid about the disagreements and skepticism within the Republican ranks -- and among Republican base voters critical to 2014 midterm success.

"That's why," he said a week ago, "doing immigration reform in a common sense, step by step manner helps our members understand the bite size pieces and helps our constituents build more confidence that what we're doing makes sense."

But to that point, again just a week ago, the word from House GOP leadership aides was that Boehner wanted to try to see if the House could act this year.

And President Obama tried to create some space for compromise, angering some liberals by telling CNN's Jake Tapper he would not prejudge the final product -- opening the door to accepting a measure that provided legal status, but not a fast track, to citizenship for the estimated 11½ million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Now, it appears testing that spirit of compromise will have to wait until 2015 or beyond.

What changed in a week?

Nothing, say key Boehner lieutenants. They insist people, primarily immigration activists and the media, read too much into what the Speaker said a week ago.

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"Nothing 'happened' per se," a top Boehner aide said in an e-mail exchange. "We just got started and getting started requires taking a sober view at the challenges that we face. All he did today was outline the challenges we need to overcome."

Those challenges -- the trust deficit as outlined by the Speaker -- are most unlikely to be overcome in a heated election year.

Veteran GOP strategist Alex Castellanos, who for years has been urging the GOP to act on immigration, said the politics behind Boehner's shift were easy to understand.

"Nothing the House would do would ever become law," Castellanos said -- meaning that even if the House passed something, it was unlikely that differences with the Senate could be worked out this year.

So a House debate now, Castellanos said, "would divide Republicans and become a political weapon Democrats could use against Republicans in 2014."

There is no doubt a vocal slice of the House GOP conference was against acting on immigration this year -- arguing their biggest priority is turning out conservative base voters, many of whom view even legal status as amnesty.

And on the Senate side, GOP leader Mitch McConnell had already served notice he had little appetite for revisiting the issue in that chamber before the election.

Not only does McConnell face a tea party primary challenge but, as we illustrated last Sunday on "Inside Politics," most GOP strategists see action on immigration this year -- whatever the long-term good it might do Republicans -- as potentially harmful to GOP prospects this year.

The raw politics behind that view: In the 11 states where Senate seats now held by Democrats that are top GOP 2014 targets, conservative turnout is critical and the Latino population tiny to small. (West Virginia is lowest with just a 1% Latino population; North Carolina is the highest at 9%.)

"McConnell saying it wasn't going to get done -- burst the balloon," said GOP strategist Ana Navarro, another voice who consistently stresses the urgency of acting on the immigration issue, yet sees the short-term political rationale of waiting.

So does Castellanos, again despite his longer-term worries about the GOP and the Latino vote.

"Right now, the spotlight is center stage on the Democrats, the President and Obamacare," said Castellanos. "And the GOP wants to do nothing to distract from that, certainly not start a food fight on immigration."

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