What Will Eric Cantor’s Defeat Mean for Immigration Reform?

On June 10th, House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, was soundly defeated in the Virginia Republican Party’s primary election, which determined who will represent the GOP in the midterm elections this November. Taking Mr. Cantor’s place on the midterm ballot will be David Brat, a little-known economist from the GOP’s Tea Party wing.

The upset victory by a challenger from the far right – further to the right than the reliably conservative Mr. Cantor – has fuelled speculation about the fate of immigration reform. This, because Mr. Cantor made a tentative feint in the direction of supporting some watered-down immigration reforms; even though no actual immigration reform legislation ever reached the floor of the House on Cantor’s watch, he was roundly pilloried by Mr. Brat and his Tea Party constituents for favoring “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants. [See Williams: Cowed GOP Leaders Run from Immigration Reform, by Juan Williams, The Hill, 09.Jun.2014.]

Does this mean immigration reform is really dead for the remainder of the 113th Congress? Probably. But lest we make too much of what happened in a single by-election in a single Congressional district, let’s take a centering breath and remember the timeless wisdom of the late, great House Speaker, Tip O’Neill, who famously said that “all politics is local.” Other prominent conservatives, like Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), managed to survive Tea Party primary challenges, despite having supported immigration reform in the past.

Prospects for House passage of immigration reform weren’t that great to begin with, and neither Speaker Boehner, nor Majority Leader Cantor, have shown much interest in bringing CIR to floor in any form. In any case, time is running out. As Juan Williams points out in The Hill, there’s precious little time remaining on the legislative calendar before the election-year August recess sends members scrambling for the hustings in their home districts.

For anyone who’s counting: on the date of the Virginia primary – June 10th – there were 26 legislative days remaining before August recess, with no votes until 6:30 p.m. on the first day of each four-day legislative work period, and no votes after 3:00 p.m. on the last day. [See House Calendar, 113th Congress, Second Session, Office of the Majority Leader, Eric Cantor.] At that point, something closer to 18 legislative days remained before the long recess, with an additional ten legislative days set aside in September, and two in October. In other words, the odds were increasingly stacked against CIR even before Mr. Cantor lost his primary race.

Though it’s tempting to make generalizations about how Cantor’s defeat might frighten off potential GOP support for CIR, that fear is likely to be short-lived. If CIR doesn’t happen soon – some time before the Presidential races gear up in 2015 – GOP mandarins will have to worry, once again, about whether the party’s anti-CIR stance will cost them the White House, by alienating the fastest-growing segment of the electorate: Latino voters. Public support for CIR continues to increase, even among Republicans, and sooner or later, even the Tea Party will have to come to the table.

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