WASHINGTON -- Senators working toward immigration reform insisted on Tuesday that House Speaker John Boehner hasn't doomed the effort by saying a comprehensive approach will only get a vote if the majority of his conference supports it. But they said his comments also show that the upper chamber needs to win large support for its bipartisan immigration bill and compel the House to give it a closer look.
"No matter what he has said, there is going to be significant national pressure on the House to do something on immigration," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Tuesday, referring to Boehner. "I'm only worried about what's going to happen here, and I'm not going to say how I really feel about it, okay?"
Boehner said he vowed to his GOP colleagues in a closed-door meeting on Tuesday that he wouldn't have a vote for an immigration bill unless most of his conference supported it.
"[A]ny immigration reform bill that is going to go into law ought to have a majority of both parties’ support if we’re really serious about making that happen," Boehner told reporters after the meeting. "And so I don’t see any way of bringing an immigration bill to the floor that doesn’t have a majority support of Republicans."
The House Judiciary Committee held its first markup on Tuesday on a piecemeal immigration reform bill that focuses solely on enforcement, and will turn on Wednesday to an agricultural guest worker immigration bill. The Senate, meanwhile, is working on a bipartisan immigration reform bill from the so-called "gang of eight" that would address border security and guest workers along with legal immigration and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Under the informal Hastert Rule -- which Boehner has broken before -- a speaker vows not to pass a bill when most of his or her own party opposes it, even if it has majority support in the House as a whole.
Senators in the gang of eight argue that a piecemeal approach won't work. If Congress only addresses enforcement, for example, then the issue of undocumented immigrants will largely remain unaddressed, or if it leaves out legal immigration improvements, then there will still be incentives for people to come to the U.S. unauthorized.
Gang of eight member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said Boehner's refusal to go forward with support from a minority of Congress was troubling and indicative of a lack of serious commitment to immigration reform.
"It is amazing and alarming that Speaker Boehner would allow a minority of House members -- who will never, ever support immigration reform -- to dictate the fate of bipartisan, comprehensive reform that an overwhelming majority of the American people want," he said in a statement. "You have to question the Republican leader’s seriousness about real immigration reform if he is willing to put tea party politics ahead of the will of the American people."
Republican members of the Senate group were reticent to criticize Boehner, but conceded that how he handles his conference is not within their control.
"That's his right. He's a dear friend," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. "I'm just saying there will never be a bill signed into law without a pathway to citizenship. Just look at the politics. Why would any president, particularly a Democratic president, sign a bill without a pathway to citizenship when 70 percent support an earned pathway to citizenship?"
Graham also said that Boehner's comments did not concern him with respect to the bill's prospects, despite widespread opposition among House conservatives to comprehensive reform.
"They pass their version, we pass our version, we have a conference," he said, referring to the process in which the House and Senate iron out differences between their bills.
Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who recently met with skeptical House conservatives to discuss their concerns, told The Huffington Post it was too early to speculate on how the bill will pass the lower chamber when the Senate is still working through its own bill.
"I don't want to comment [on Boehner] -- the best we can do is pass a good bill in the Senate and the House will work its will," Flake said.
Rubio said he wasn't focused on matters outside of the Senate.
"Speaker Boehner and the House will do what the House needs to do, and we respect that," he said. "They have their own opinions and they'll have their own imprints on this. That's the way this process works and it's the way the process should work."
"I'm focused on getting the strongest possible bill out of the Senate with the most amount of support as possible, and I think if we do that, it'll increase the chances that this can pass," he added.
Gang of eight member Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) echoed the views of his Republican colleagues.
"Look, I think that the better we do in the Senate, the more likely the House will be to take up our bill ... but we also know we're going to have to bargain with the House, so we have to be careful," he said. "I've always assumed that we had to get mainstream Republicans in the House to get a bill done."
Boehner's promise doesn't necessarily mean an end to comprehensive immigration reform. Even if the House passed piecemeal legislation, it could be combined later with the Senate bill when the chambers meet to work out their differences, although the final result would need to be approved by the House. Boehner, for his part, wouldn't say whether his vow not to break the Hastert rule also applied to a post-conference bill.
"We'll see when we get there," he said.
UPDATE: 6:05 p.m. -- A Boehner spokesman told the National Review's Jonathan Strong that the speaker's comments also would apply to a conference report after the House and Senate combined bills. Boehner had previously declined to rule out holding a vote on a conference report without the support of a majority of his conference.
Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.