- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2014

RICHMOND | House Majority Leader Eric Cantor took heat in his own backyard Wednesday from both sides of the immigration debate, trying to fend off a primary challenge from his right flank even as he faces scorching pressure from immigrant rights advocates to lead Republicans in passing legislation.

The pressure from both sides makes Mr. Cantor a microcosm of the dilemma Republicans face nationally.

Minutes after primary challenger Dave Brat held a press conference at the Virginia Capitol accusing Mr. Cantor of being “the number one cheerleader in Congress for amnesty,” immigration activists were rallying inside the building, demanding that the No. 2 House Republican bring a legalization bill to the House floor for a vote this year.

“Eric Cantor saying he opposes amnesty is like Barack Obama saying he opposes ObamaCare,” Mr. Brat told reporters on the South Portico of the state Capitol.

With House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, having survived his primary, tea party activists have taken aim at Mr. Cantor, and immigration has become a flashpoint in the debate.

Trying to push back, Mr. Cantor’s campaign sent out a mailer this week arguing he’s been the chief obstacle to amnesty.

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“Conservative Republican Eric Cantor is stopping the Obama-Reid plan to give illegal aliens amnesty,” it reads.

Mr. Cantor’s team argues that the mailer is true, and that the Republican leader has rejected holding a vote on the Senate immigration bill, which would grant citizenship rights to most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.

Instead, Mr. Cantor has called for trying to find consensus on smaller bills, including granting legal status to young illegal immigrants known as Dreamers, who were often brought to the U.S. as children and are considered among the most sympathetic cases.

“That’s called leadership,” said Cantor campaign spokesman Ray Allen. “There was nothing consistent about [Mr. Brat’s] statements today. He’s gone into silly land.”

Mr. Brat argues that still amounts to amnesty, and some rank-and-file House Republicans fear that passing any bill out of their chamber this year will open up a window for the Senate to turn it into a broad amnesty.

Mr. Cantor had more than $2 million in the bank at the end of March compared to Mr. Brat’s $42,418, but the tea party challenger and college professor has raised eyebrows outside of Virginia. He has attracted support from such people as conservative commentator Ann Coulter, but he also has consistently acknowledged the improbability of unseating the sitting house majority leader, who won nearly 80 percent of the vote when he turned aside a primary challenger two years ago.

Last month, Democrats in the state’s 7th Congressional District had to cancel a nominating convention to select their candidate in the race after no candidates had filed by an April 10 deadline, meaning the winner of the June 10 primary is virtually assured victory in the fall general election.

Mr. Cantor is still facing pressure from Democrats, however.

Almost weekly, he fends off questions from Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, about why the Republican leadership won’t take up immigration on the House floor.

And on Wednesday, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat and one of the most ardent amnesty advocates in the House, traveled to Richmond to rally for Mr. Cantor to break the congressional impasse.

Mr. Gutierrez commended Mr. Cantor for speaking about the issue but said that simply talking about it is not enough.

“We’re not in the majority, so I don’t expect a Democratic bill,” Mr. Gutierrez said at the Wednesday event at the Capitol organized by CASA de Virginia.

“But guess what? What Eric Cantor represents is the future of the Republican Party, and if you do not give a vote on comprehensive immigration reform, let me assure you of one consequence: the Republican Party will become a party of regions, of localities. The Republican Party no longer is the dominant party in the state of Virginia, and that is because of the growing power and the growing influence of the Latino community,” he said.

Indeed, Democrats do hold the top three statewide elected offices in the commonwealth for the first time in nearly 25 years. Virginia has two Democratic U.S. senators, and the once reliably Republican state at the presidential level has voted twice for Barack Obama.

But the state is also reflective of the broader political landscape in the country as well, as Republicans hold an overwhelming majority in both the state House of Delegates and the state’s delegation to the U.S. House.

GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said that taking heat from both sides is the price Mr. Cantor is paying for having good intentions and trying to step out on the issue.

“Passing the Senate’s bill is not an option for Cantor or House Republicans,” he said, predicting the House would become more open to dealing with the issue if Republicans take back control of the U.S. Senate in the fall midterm elections.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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