House Divided

In Passover Phone Conversation, Eric Cantor Slams Obama

The House Majority Leader reportedly flipped out at the president over immigration reform during a private call ahead of the Jewish holiday.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

A phone call initiated by President Obama to wish House Majority Leader Eric Cantor a good Passover on the eve of the holiday turned contentious when the Republican blamed Obama for congressional inaction on immigration reform, saying that after five years, “the president still has not learned how to effectively work with Congress to get things done.”

Taking questions from reporters in the White House briefing room Thursday afternoon, Obama said he had a “very pleasant conversation with Mr. Cantor,” and that “the mismatch between conversation and the press release” is not unusual in Washington.

Obama went on to say he knows it’s hard politically for Republicans to act because they are divided on the issue, and he seemed to take Cantor’s rebuff in stride. The majority leader had taken umbrage at a statement Obama had issued earlier in the same day as their phone call to mark the one-year anniversary since the Senate’s passage of immigration reform with 68 votes, an historic achievement in this partisan era. Obama urged the House to take action, chiding House Republicans for “seemingly preferring the status quo of a broken immigration system over meaningful reform.”

By Washington standards, that’s not much of a broadside, but it was a bit more aggressive than Obama has been on the issue. For the last year, he has kept his powder dry, staying on the sidelines to give Republicans time to sort out their internal divisions. His absence from the debate hasn’t helped the GOP come together, and Obama has been under mounting pressure from the Democratic base to take action on his own.

A phone call initiated in the spirit of the season must not have gone that well, and Cantor’s statement said, “The president called me hours after he issued a partisan statement which attacked me and my fellow House Republicans and which indicated no sincere desire to work together… You do not attack the very people you hope to engage in a serious dialogue.”

A week after a summit at the LBJ Library celebrating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Lyndon Johnson’s legendary skills in working with Congress, everyone agrees Obama is no LBJ. But for Cantor to blame Obama’s handling of the issue for the GOP’s failure to legislate is no more credible than other explanations they have offered.

Republicans say they can’t act because they can’t trust Obama to follow the law, and that Obama is running an imperial presidency. These are excuses offered up by a party that is too divided to govern and legislate.

Republicans remain furious that Obama enacted the Dream Act by executive order in 2011—deferring legal action against young people brought to the country illegally by their parents. The Dream Act is wildly popular with just about everyone, and this month California Republican Jeff Denham appeared to have Cantor’s blessing for a proposal inserted into the defense authorization bill that would let young people dubbed Dreamers join the military and earn legal status.

Conservative hardliners led by Iowa Republican Steve King ridiculed the ENLIST Act. “As soon as they raise their hand and say, ‘I’m unlawfully present in the United States,’ we’re not going to take your oath into the military, but we’re going to take your deposition and we have a bus for you to Tijuana,” King told Breitbart News. “That’s the law.”

Faced with resistance, Republican Buck McKeon, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, said the ENLIST language would not be inserted in the defense authorization bill, which is due on the House floor for a vote in May, but that Denham could introduce it as an amendment. The dustup among Republicans shows how divided they are, and how extremists in the party are really running the show. Anyone who has some practical solution to move the immigration issue forward immediately gets shut down.

That brings us back to Cantor and why he felt the need to issue such a tough statement after his phone call with Obama. Cantor wants to be House Speaker and he’s cast his lot with where the votes are—Tea Party conservatives and their allies—and this faction of the GOP doesn’t want immigration reform, not in this Congress and maybe never.

If the ENLIST amendment is allowed a vote, it would easily pass, unless the Democrats counter with some maneuver of their own on a wider Dream Act. Florida Republican Mario Diaz-Balart is warning his colleagues that the GOP is missing an opportunity to put its stamp on immigration reform if it fails to take action by August, and that Obama will act on his own to ease deportations, and reap the electoral windfall.

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At his press conference, Obama was coy about future changes in immigration law through executive order. Meaningful reform has to be done legislatively, he said, but Jeh Johnson, his new secretary of homeland security, is doing a “thoroughgoing review” to see if there is something more that can be done.

“Unless Republicans can pull a rabbit from the hat in the next month or two, we’d like to see the president protect those who would qualify under the Senate bill,” says Patty Kupser, managing director of immigration advocate America’s Voice. Obama has told activists that he does not plan to take further action by executive order, but Kupser remembers that he said much the same thing shortly before signing the Dream Act.