The bipartisan group of eight senators who led the charge to pass a Senate immigration overhaul were mixed over whether reservations on moving a plan voiced by Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, spells the end of the effort this year.
Sen. Jeff Flake thought that the speaker was pulling the curtain down on the effort for the year.
"I don't know how you don't read impossible out of those statements," the Arizona Republican said.
He added that he was disappointed. "I wish we'd do it. We can't keep putting it off," he said.
But others held out hope a deal could still be reached after Boehner said that an immigration overhaul package would be difficult to pass this year in large part because Republicans don't trust President Barack Obama to enforce the laws uniformly. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said that Boehner was just stating the obvious — that doing immigration would be difficult.
"He’s right. I agree with him," Schumer said. He added that he believes there are a significant number of House GOP leaders that want to pass a bill.
Schumer also noted that Boehner didn't definitively say that he wouldn't pursue a bill this year.
Schumer and Flake were part of the bipartisan group of eight senators who drafted an immigration overhaul package and led the charge for Senate passage of the measure in June. Along with Flake, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina were also part of the group. Democratic senators, in addition to Schumer, included Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
While Schumer and Flake were far apart on their interpretations, other members of the immigration group fell in between.
McCain said he remained relatively upbeat about the prospects for a bill. But he said the president isn't helping the cause with his State of the Union pledge to undertake more executive actions when Congress couldn't be persuaded to act.
"I'm still guardedly optimistic," McCain said. "I think [Boehner is] reflecting a lot of the concern that people have because the president has stated, 'I've got a pen and I've got a phone.'"
McCain said he also understands concerns about Obama not enforcing laws.
"But I still would point out everybody in our base supports this bill," McCain said. "Business, evangelicals, the growers, everybody — there's a broader base in support of this than anything I've ever seen. So, I would expect some pushback from some of those [constituencies]."
Rubio declined to estimate the bill's current chances but said that the president's go-it-alone attitude has turned off a lot of Republicans.
"The single greatest impediment to immigration reform is the belief among many that no matter what you write in the law it won't be enforced by this administration," Rubio said. "I found that to be the single toughest hurdle to overcome when we tried it here in the Senate and I'm not surprised its the same hurdle they are experiencing in the House."
"He continues to go in the wrong direction when he says that he has a 'pen and a phone' [to go around Congress] ... these things are extremely counter-productive," Rubio said.
Graham didn't think the door was necessarily closed, but the comments had more to do with what Boehner is hearing from his conference.
He said Republican distrust was spurred by passage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act, such as the one-year delay in November of the online enrollment for small businesses seeking to purchase health coverage through federal exchanges.
"I think he is probably expressing the view widely held by a lot of members of the Republican Party that after the Affordable Care Act and all the manipulation of the law it's pretty hard to trust him to do something on immigration," Graham said.
Asked if he thinks immigration is dead, Graham said, "I don't know," adding that the upshot is that "this president has made it hard to do big things."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who has led the charge in the Senate against an immigration overhaul, refused to say it was dead for the year. But he noted the comments were significant in that Boehner seemed to be recognizing the difficulties.
"I think we were too far apart on substance to ever realistically expect an agreement with the Democrats," Sessions said, adding, "I think it would be divisive for the Republicans and wouldn't end well in any circumstance."
The remaining Democrats in the gang were also more optimistic and said the effort called for political courage on Boehner's part.
"Another week, another immigration reform obituary coming from House Republicans," Menendez said in a release. "This time, Speaker Boehner tries to blame his own inaction on President Obama. Meanwhile, the votes exist in the House to pass immigration reform and his failure to allow a vote has thwarted the will of the majority. No one said this would be an easy process, but it is irresponsible for Speaker Boehner and House Republicans to place blame on anyone other than themselves."
"These types of political games do not reflect the true intentions of the majority of the U.S. Congress or of the American people," he continued. "I look forward to solid legislative action from the House Republicans to fix our nation’s broken immigration system once and for all.”
Bennet said that many constituencies, including agriculture and high-tech business, are on board and that the time to do it is this year.
"I think we can do it this year," Bennet said. "Sure it's difficult, but I think it's worth doing."
Durbin said he doesn’t have much sympathy for Boehner, who wants to pass a bill with a majority of Republicans voting for it.
“I just don’t think it’s any refuge for Speaker Boehner to say, ‘I just can’t convince a majority of my caucus,” said Durbin, speaking at the news conference. “He will never convince a majority of his caucus, but if he joined with the other members of the House of Representatives there will be a majority to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.