House Speaker John Boehner is mocking fellow House Republicans for saying that it's too hard to tackle the controversial issue of immigration reform.
Speaking Thursday at a meeting of the Middletown Rotary Club in his home congressional district in southwestern Ohio, an animated Boehner, talking about his colleagues on Capitol Hill, said "here's the attitude: 'Ohhhh, don't make me do this. Ohhhh, this is too hard.'"
According to CNN affiliate WKRC and other local reports, the speaker went on to say that "We get elected to make choices. We get elected to solve problems and it's remarkable to me how many of my colleagues just don't want to," adding that "They'll take the path of least resistance."
Reminding the audience that he's been working for more than a year to convince fellow House Republicans to try and hammer out something on immigration reform, adding that "I've had every brick and bat and arrow shot at me over this issue just because I wanted to deal with it. I didn't say it was going to be easy."
Public teasing similiar to private ribbing
But a senior House Republican told CNN the speaker's ribbing of his own members wasn't new and is something House GOP members are used to hearing.
"If I had a nickel for every time John called me a name I'd be a millionaire," Rep Peter King told CNN Friday in a phone interview. King said Boehner has used a mocking tone in closed door meetings to give members a hard time, but not just on immigration, and said "that's just John."
"He'll kid you about everything -- your haircut, a tie, guys changing their vote from one month to the next."
Asked about possible blowback from conservatives who are offended the speaker is making fun of his own members, King said, "these guys should just lighten up and toughen up."
King recalled a recent incident when he was called in to meet with Boehner after he criticized the leadership about not moving fast enough on legislation providing aid to communities impacted by Superstorm Sandy. When Boehner walked in and saw King seated at the table in his office he greeted him by saying, "hello shithead."
The New York Republican, whose district is home to large immigrant community, sent Boehner a letter on Wednesday to say he wanted to support the speaker's efforts to move forward with immigration reform now.
A CNN congressional reporter and producer have heard Boehner use the same mocking tone towards fellow House Republicans that they have to take tough votes on such issues as immigration, in private conversations.
Responding to reports of the speaker's comments, Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said "As the speaker often says to his colleagues, 'You only tease the ones you love.'"
The Democratic-controlled Senate approved a bipartisan immigration bill last year that included an eventual path toward citizenship for most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. But the Senate bill stalled in the GOP-led House, where party leaders said they preferred to address the matter incrementally rather than in one comprehensive measure. Many conservatives oppose any legislation that includes a pathway towards citizenship, which they consider "amnesty."
Even though Boehner continues to say in public and private meetings that he wants to address immigration reform, he signaled that any action on immigration is unlikely this year because he said Republicans in the chamber don't trust President Barack Obama on the issue.
Boehner's public comments in Ohio reflect the dynamic that's been going on behind the scenes for months. The speaker has repeatedly pressed his members that the broken immigration system needs to be fixed. But the rank and file have resisted, saying they don't want to touch the controversial issue in an election year. Part of the speaker's pitch is that GOP members didn't get elected to just do the easy things.
Due to the backlash inside his conference last year to the massive bill that passed the Senate passed, Boehner pledged the House would only take up the issue in piecemeal bills, and focus first on enforcement. But again, after the Speaker laid out specifics for this strategy at the annual retreat in January, many Republican members appealed to Boehner to hold off because they were worried about political blow-back and potential primary challenges.
King noted that there is more discussion and movement inside the conference on the issue than there was a year ago. He argues that the politics now favor Republicans because they are likely to get Democrats to agree to stricter border controls as part of a deal to address legal status for the 11 million undocumented in the US now.
But he's not confident any vote will actually happen on the House floor. "I don't know. I think it would be difficult. Rome wasn't built in a day," the New York Republican told CNN.
Heritage Action, the political wing of the Heritage Foundation, one of oldest and most influential conservative think tanks, was critical of the speaker's comments.
Republican Party should be large enough for fact-based policy debates. Unfortunately, John Boehner is more interested in advancing the agenda of high-powered DC special interests than inspiring Americans with a policy vision that allows freedom, opportunity, prosperity and civil society to flourish," said Heritage Action chief executive officer Michael A. Needham, in a statement.
Boehner has become increasingly outspoken in public in recent months against some of the influential DC-based conservative groups, such as Heritage Action, which have strong ties to the tea party movement and other grassroots activists.
With Congress on recess, Boehner is back in his district this week, ahead of the May 6 Ohio primary, when he once again faces multiple party challengers, including one with support from tea party activists. But the Speaker is expected to easily win re-nomination. In the general election, Boehner was unopposed in 2012, and has grabbed at least 61% of the vote in each of his 12 congressional election victories.