WASHINGTON -- The White House's surprise decision Wednesday to delay a review of deportations once again revived the immigration debate, shifting focus from President Barack Obama -- who has increasingly come under fire from immigrant advocates as the "deporter in chief" -- and throwing the issue back into the laps of reluctant House Republicans.
Some observers saw it as a shrewd move by Mr. Obama that just might produce an immigration law overhaul this summer, but others cautioned against raising hopes, especially given Republican disunity over how to grapple with the thorny issue in an election year.
By delaying a planned Department of Homeland Security deportation procedures review until August, the White House said it wanted to provide the House with an opportunity to pass a reform bill before the midterm election. "We wouldn't want [the review] to create a reason not to act or an excuse not to act," White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
But Republican leaders were cool to the president's overture. House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said Mr. Obama's decision to postpone the deportation review should not be seen as a "concession" to Republicans, but as part of the president's responsibility to uphold existing laws.
House Republicans have said they are hesitant to pass any immigration laws because they don't trust the president to enforce those already on the books. That led Mr. Obama to say he has no choice but to take executive actions.
Curbing that circular argument was part of the strategy behind Wednesday's move. Mr. Obama asked Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to delay devising ways to reduce the number of deportations. The White House feared that even modest deportation policy changes would antagonize Republicans, disappoint immigration activists and doom any chances of a bipartisan accord.
Republicans have come a long way in softening their immigration reform rhetoric, as the party tries to expand its diminishing political base and appeal to more Latino and other minority voters. Mr. Boehner has mocked colleagues for whining that reform was "too hard" and admonished hard-liners, such Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who suggested that young immigrants who crossed the border illegally were likely drug mules.
At the same time, GOP infighting remains intense. Many Republican lawmakers from conservative districts have no interest in providing immigrants with legal status, let alone a path to citizenship, the cornerstone of a bipartisan reform bill the Democratic-controlled Senate passed last year.
As primary season draws to a close next month, strategists say the summer could offer Republicans a chance to broach the immigration issue without fearing a backlash by their base. Resolving the issue would have an added benefit of uniting the party before the presidential primaries begin.
Still, the White House move positions the president's party for a potential win-win. Either House Republicans will serve up immigration legislation by August, or the president will argue that he had little choice but to act on his own.