WASHINGTON - For a president looking for a legacy piece of legislation, the current state of the immigration debate represents a high-wire act.
President Barack Obama could act alone to slow deportations, and probably doom any chance of a permanent and comprehensive overhaul. Yet if he shows too much patience, the opportunity to fix immigration laws as he wants could well slip away.
As Republican leaders dampen expectations for overhauling immigration laws this year, the White House is hoping that the GOP resistance is temporary and tactical, and Obama is resisting pressure from some political allies to take matters into his own hands and ease his administration's deportation record.
House Speaker John Boehner this week all but ruled out passage of immigration legislation before the fall midterm elections, saying Republicans had trouble trusting that Obama would implement all aspects of an immigration law.
White House officials say they believe Boehner ultimately wants to get it done. But they acknowledge that Boehner faces stiff resistance from conservatives who oppose any form of legalization for immigrants who have crossed into the United States illegally or overstayed their visas. As well, Republicans are eager to keep this election year's focus on Obama's health care law.
Obama is willing to give Boehner space to operate and to tamp down the conservative outcry that greeted a set of immigration overhaul principles the speaker brought forward last week. For now, the White House is simply standing behind a comprehensive bill that passed in the Senate last year, but is not trying to press Boehner on how to proceed in the Republican-controlled House.
Vice President Joe Biden told CNN that Obama is waiting to see what the House passes before responding.
The White House view could be overly optimistic, playing down the strength of the opposition to acting this year.
For Republicans the immigration issue poses two political challenges. In the short term, it displays intraparty divisions when they want to use their unified opposition to the health care law as a key issue in the 2014 elections. Immigration distracts from that strategy. But failure to pass an immigration overhaul would be a significant drag on the chances of a Republican winning the 2016 presidential election if angry Latino voters are mobilized to vote for the Democratic nominee.