President Obama tried to kick-start the immigration debate Wednesday with a call to a top House Republican, but his target, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, rejected the overture, saying it was made just hours after the president took a partisan shot on the very same issue — underscoring why Mr. Obama is getting little accomplished in Washington.
Wednesday marked one year since a bipartisan group of senators introduced a massive immigration reform bill, igniting a debate that led to a 68-32 vote for approval in June largely along party lines. Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats used the anniversary to plead with House lawmakers to pick up the issue, either by passing the Senate bill or writing their own version.
When the president called Mr. Cantor, the Virginia Republican raised objections to a statement earlier in the day in which Mr. Obama accused Republicans of extremism and trying to punish blameless illegal immigrants.
“After five years, President Obama still has not learned how to effectively work with Congress to get things done. You do not attack the very people you hope to engage in a serious dialogue,” Mr. Cantor said in a statement recounting the conversation.
Immigration is a politically thorny issue, fraught with peril on both sides.
Immigrant rights advocates say Republicans will lose support among Hispanic voters in November’s congressional elections and in the 2016 presidential contest if the House doesn’t act on a bill this year.
Advocates also want Mr. Obama to unilaterally carve out protections from deportation, just as he did ahead of the 2012 election when he granted tentative legal status and work permits to young adults who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
The Obama administration seemed to be tamping down those expectations.
Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, told the Fusion television network that the administration feels constrained in steps it can take to halt deportations and said officials were “going to focus on Congress” as the place for action.
“What people are asking is the president just say he’s not going to enforce the law with respect to 8 million, 10 million people, which is more than your executive authority allows you to do,” Ms. Munoz said. “The answer to this conundrum is, always has been, legislation.”
Immigrant rights advocates vehemently disagreed on the limits to White House legal powers and were disheartened by Ms. Munoz’s comments.
“The White House continues to use fallacious arguments to defend the indefensible, and one is left to wonder whether good policy or bad politics is the driving factor at play,” said Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
Immigrants have been staging a continual vigil outside the White House for two weeks. Several have gone on hunger strikes to try to bring attention to family members facing deportation.
“People are going to continue to push and pressure the president. He’s the one that can provide the relief right now,” said Cesar Vargas, co-director of the Dream Action Coalition.
Mr. Vargas said he understands Mr. Obama’s tough balancing act but that the White House does have authority to halt deportations if it summons the will to challenge Republicans.