White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Monday said Ryan's recent comments on immigration reform are "preposterous" and disappointing.
The Wisconsin Republican said Sunday that he's ruled out passing comprehensive immigration legislation while President Barack Obama is in office. He said Obama cannot be trusted on the issue because he went around Congress to take executive actions shielding from deportation millions of people living in the country illegally.
Earnest called the remark "ironic." He said it's Ryan who supported an immigration deal, then failed to push for it to come up for a vote in the House.
The White House criticism comes as Ryan is maneuvering carefully on the issue of immigration, long a priority for him. With most House conservatives wary of anything that could constitute "amnesty" for the 11.5 million immigrants living here illegally, Ryan has offered repeated assurances, before and after becoming speaker last week, that he will not pursue comprehensive immigration legislation as long as Obama is president.
It's a new stance for Ryan, who as recently as last year was working behind the scenes in the House to promote immigration legislation following Senate passage of a comprehensive bill, including a path to citizenship for those here illegally.
The secretive House efforts largely collapsed in the aftermath of former Majority Leader Eric Cantor's upset loss in a GOP primary in June of 2014, attributed to Cantor's supposed support for immigration legislation.
Ryan even embraced eventual citizenship for those here illegally, something that's anathema to many conservatives. In a 2013 appearance before the City Club of Chicago alongside the leading pro-immigrant activist in the House, Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, Ryan said: "We do not want to have a society where we have different classes of people who cannot reach their American dream by being a full citizen. That is a very important part of immigration reform."
Asked Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" about his support for a "path to citizenship," Ryan emphasized something different, saying: "Well, legal status is what I was talking about."
Legal status versus citizenship is an important distinction, partly because only citizenship confers the right to vote. His office said Ryan supports "earned legal status," noting that this could eventually lead to citizenship through existing channels.
Ryan has been under pressure from conservative lawmakers demanding assurances from him on the issue, even as Gutierrez and other activists have criticized him for offering such promises.
Earnest said Ryan's remarks don't bode well for a "new era of Republican leadership."