Boehner: Immigration debate "is not about me"

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio
CBS News

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, knows the immigration system in America is broken and in sore need of repair.

What he doesn't know is what the House will do to fix it.

"The legal immigration system's broken," he said Sunday on "Face the Nation." "We have a problem with 11 million people who are here without documents - 40 percent of them, by the way, came here as legal immigrants. So we've got a very big problem."

Boehner said the immigration bill passed by the Senate was too "massive" and did not contain enough "serious triggers" to guarantee border security. He said the House would deal with reform "in chunks," but when he was asked whether he would allow the House to vote on a bill that included a pathway to citizenship for those 11 million undocumented immigrants, he repeatedly demurred.

"It is not about me," he said. "This is about allowing the House to work its will."

Democrats and some Republicans have warned that a bill without a path to citizenship stands no chance of passage, but Boehner remained noncommittal. "I'm not going to predict what's going to be on the floor and what isn't going to be on the floor, and that's what you're asking me to do. I can't do that, and I don't want to do that," he said. "What I committed to when I became speaker was to a more open and fair process. And as difficult as this issue is, me taking a hard position for or against some of these issues will make it harder for us to get a bill."

He contrasted his managerial approach to leadership with that of former speakers.

"I've watched a number of speakers during my tenure here in Congress," he said, "and I can talk about what happened just before I became speaker. All the bills were written in the speaker's office. Those bills all turned out to be very unpopular."

"Yeah, I've got certain things that I'd like to see accomplished, but this is not going to be about me," he said. "If we're listening to the American people and we're following their will, our House will work just fine."

Boehner also defended the House's nearly 40 votes to repeal Obamacare, saying the law is "not ready for primetime."

"This program isn't ready," he said. "This is not good for the country, and we're going to stay at it."

He suggested Democrats in the Senate "know it's not ready," and urged them to take up a pair of bills passed by the House on Wednesday that would delay the law's requirement for individuals and businesses to purchase health insurance.

And the Obama administration's heavy hand extended far beyond healthcare, Boehner argued. "I would argue the president's policies are getting in the way of the economy growing, whether it's Obamacare, or whether it's all these needless regulations that are coming out of the government," he said. "It's getting in the way of people wanting to invest in our economy."

He cited deficit reduction and tax reform as his own top priorities, calling for a "smaller, lest costly, and more accountable federal government" to produce "real economic growth."

And in light of recent controversies involving the IRS and the terror attack in Benghazi, Boehner said, "The American people are looking up at a government that's out of control. It's too big to govern"

Yet even as he tiptoed judiciously through a field of partisan landmines, Boehner dismissed the seemingly intractable Washington gridlock, blaming Congress's abysmal approval ratings on "divided government."

"We're fighting for what we believe in," he said. "Sometimes the American people don't like this mess."

He said he has spoken with President Obama regularly over the last several months, and suggested that the political warfare in Washington may abate as time wears on.

"There's partisan scar tissue all over this place, but the more that I can open it up and allow members to work together, over time, that partisan scar tissue will begin to melt and go away," he said. "It's a long-term proposition, but I'm committed to it. ... I'm an optimist. I wouldn't be sitting here if I wasn't."

"Yes, the country's divided, but my goodness, there's common ground," he insisted. "It's a little harder to find today than it was 10 years ago."