Obama insists Cantor defeat won't kill immigration bill hopes

Shock primary defeat of top Republican could dash reform hopes, but president stays upbeat

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 June, 2014, 9:10pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 June, 2014, 5:04am

US President Barack Obama has rejected the notion that the shock election defeat of a top Republican leader had effectively dashed his hopes of passing a legacy- enhancing immigration bill.

Obama hurriedly regrouped following the defeat of House Republican leader Eric Cantor in a primary election, in which his dark-horse opponent blasted him as a favouring "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.

There has been little love lost between Cantor and Obama,but the Republican chieftain had been seen as open to some limited reform of a system that has left 12 million illegal immigrants in limbo.

Now, few political observers believe Republicans facing tough primary fights for their party nominations or tight mid-term election races in November, will welcome tricky votes on a reform drive reviled by conservatives.

But Obama, speaking to an audience of wealthy Democratic donors in Massachusetts on Wednesday, begged to differ.

"It is interesting to listen to the pundits and the analysts," Obama said. "Some of the conventional wisdom talks about the politics of immigration reform [being] impossible now.

"I fundamentally reject that. I will tell the speaker of the House that he needs to reject it," said Obama, reasoning that Cantor lost because he failed to show sufficient leadership on immigration. "We need to get immigration reform done."

The Senate has already passed a bill to further secure US borders, reform visa procedures and offer an eventual path to citizenship to illegal immigrants. But the House has yet to act, with Republican leaders loath to expose their rank-and-file to the fury of conservative primary voters.

The stunning primary defeat of Cantor in his Virginia congressional district by college professor Dave Brat, a hero of the radical conservative Tea Party faction, ranked as one of the biggest electoral upsets in decades.

Brookings Institution senior fellow Audrey Singer said that hopes of passing immigration reform were previously "slim" and "this might be the nail in the coffin".

Immigration does not tell the whole story of Cantor's demise - he had apparently lost touch with his district - but the perception that it did him in may be enough.

Shattered hopes of reform are not just bad news for Obama, who desperately needs a triumph to flesh out a thin second term.

In recent presidential elections, Republicans have slumped among Hispanic voters - for whom immigration reform is an article of faith. Many political professionals believe the party will never recapture the White House without repairing ties to the fast-growing community.

In 2012, Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney by 71 per cent to 27 per cent among Hispanics, who made the difference in some key swing states. But the recent political lesson is that any Republican who touches immigration reform runs a risk of offending the party's core supporters. Texas Governor Rick Perry stumbled on the issue and saw his presidential campaign crumble in 2012.

A possible Republican presidential candidate in 2016, Senator Marco Rubio, has struggled to rebuild his fortunes after championing Senate immigration reform last year.