Obama Pushing Immigration as New Doubts Emerge in House

White House Effort Comes as Boehner Says No Votes Will Be Coming From GOP

House Speaker John Boehner

The White House is intensifying its push to get an immigration overhaul through Congress this year, but House Speaker John Boehner cast new doubt Wednesday about the prospects for quick action.

President Barack Obama brainstormed at the White House Wednesday with religious leaders over how to persuade House Republicans to move on the issue. Last week, the president met with business executives to urge them to speak out for action. He is planning other immigration events on the road, with a mix of national and local outreach, both behind the scenes and publicly. On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden talked to Roman Catholic leaders.

But Mr. Boehner said House lawmakers wouldn’t vote on any immigration bills while Republicans work on “principles” behind legislation. Many advocates for an immigration overhaul read the Ohio Republican’s announcement as a setback. Others saw hope that the speaker was setting a course that could lead the GOP House to take up legislation, which has stalled since the Senate passed a sweeping bill in June.

Mr. Obama has limited influence on House Republicans as they consider their immigration strategy, so he is reaching out to audiences sympathetic to the idea of an overhaul to try to get them to generate pressure. The immigration issue also offers the president a chance to change the subject away from the troubled rollout of his health law. The only other legislative initiative on his plate, a proposed increase in the minimum wage, has no chance of passing Congress and serves more as a rallying point for Democrats.

After last week’s immigration meeting with business leaders, one corporation represented, McDonald’s Corp., decided to enlist its franchise owners to lobby members of Congress on the issue, two people familiar with the company’s plans said. The company declined to detail its plans but said it supported the overall immigration effort.

In the Oval Office Wednesday, religious leaders discussed a plan to connect religious messages around Christmas with the plight of illegal immigrants and need for action, participants said. The discussion centered on “how can you help the country to get past the politics” that have engulfed immigration, said Jim Wallis, president of the liberal Christian group Sojourners, who was at the meeting. He said Mr. Obama told them, “You all can do more to change the country than I can do.”

Last week, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, wrote to Mr. Boehner and pressed the speaker to move on immigration “as soon as possible.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pushed parishioners to call members of Congress on Wednesday about immigration and plans events for Dec. 12 at local churches.

On Capitol Hill, it was unclear whether Mr. Boehner’s maneuvering was a stalling tactic or a move designed to help unify Republicans, especially rank-and-file lawmakers opposed to an immigration overhaul. The speaker has said repeatedly he would like to see action on immigration, and other GOP leaders, including Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, also are advocating broad legislative action.

Advocates of the overhaul had held out hope that the House would move legislation before year-end that could be married with the Senate bill. Mr. Boehner made clear that wouldn’t be the case. “I want us to deal with this issue, but I want to deal with it in a common sense, step-by-step way,” he told reporters. He declined to specify when leaders might bring any bills to the House floor. “As we develop the principles we’ll figure out how we’re going to move ahead.”

He added: “I’ll make clear that we have no intention of ever going to conference on the Senate bill,” he said.

Mr. Boehner’s move was welcomed by the leading opponent of the Senate immigration bill, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), who applauded House Republicans for “resisting an influence campaign and standing for the interests of the American people.”

Mr. Boehner’s decision wouldn’t preclude the House from negotiating with the Senate on individual bills, aides said, though the precise mechanics of how that would work remain unclear.

House committees have passed five immigration bills and are expected to consider additional legislation. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R., Texas) said he has been pushing to get a floor vote on his border-security bill, which passed unanimously in his panel. “We’ve wasted a lot of time by not moving it forward,” he said.

House GOP leaders announced the push to develop immigration principles without discussing the idea with the rank-and-file lawmakers most involved in the immigration effort. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) said the discussions had just begun.

Ali Noorani, who leads a coalition of business, religious and law-enforcement officials in favor of an immigration overhaul, expressed dismay with what he saw as a needless delay. “The time for legislative principles is long past,” he said.

But Tamar Jacoby, a Republican who heads the advocacy group ImmigrationWorks USA, saw the Boehner move as a step toward passing a bill because it makes clear to wary House Republicans that the House won’t compromise with the Senate bill, which many of them despise.

“It’s possible recognizing that reality helps,” she said. “What I hear Boehner saying is…now we’re going to get serious and look for a way forward.”

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