Washington • House Speaker John Boehner said Sunday that fixing the nation's fiscal problems, not its immigration laws, was his top priority, as the most comprehensive proposal in a generation to change the immigration system languishes in the Republican-controlled House.
Boehner has appeared unswayed by the political momentum behind the bipartisan Senate bill, and even after talking last week with President Barack Obama, he wants the House to take its time.
The speaker also dismissed critics who have said this Congress has been among the most unproductive in years. He defended the House's decision to hold dozens of votes to repeal the nation's 2010 health-care law bills that are almost certain never to become law.
"We should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal," he said.
Boehner said he remained "optimistic" that Congress could do something to fix our fiscal situation."
Legislation to fund the government and avoid a federal shutdown will be at the top of the agenda when lawmakers return in the fall from the August recess. Funding for federal operations expires Sept. 30.
The speaker has struggled to lead his often unruly majority and declined Sunday to get in front of them on the centerpiece of the bipartisan Senate-passed immigration bill a 13-year path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living in the country without legal status. Many Republican House members have few minority voters in their districts and do not see the issue as a priority.
"If I come out and say I'm for this and I'm for that, all I'm doing is making my job harder," Boehner said.
Supporters of the immigration bill said the Republican leader's decision to take it slow on the issue comes at political risk to the party.
"The Republicans have a decision to make: They can stay out of touch and in denial or they can get this done," Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., said recently.
This week, a House committee plans to debate a more limited pathway to citizenship for immigrants brought to the country as minors a proposal Democrats and immigration advocates oppose as insufficient.
The "Kids Act," being formed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., would give Republicans a way to ease into the idea of legalizing those who are in the country illegally without embracing the broader path that most Republicans still oppose. The bill promises to be substantially different from the Dream Act - provisions included in the Senate bill that would give young immigrants an expedited citizenship path if they attend college or join the military.
Boehner embraced Cantor's proposal as a matter of "fairness" last week saying young people without legal status should not be punished because their parents entered the country illegally or stayed on expired visas.
But many of the "Dreamers," young people who could benefit by the act, said they are not willing to leave their parents in legal limbo at a time when the Senate bill provides a broader path for almost all immigrants in the country to become legal.
"The 'Kids Act' is just childish games by House Republicans," Cesar Vargas, director of a coalition that advocates for young immigrants, said recently. "It pits dreamers against our families."