WASHINGTON — To the frustration of many of his supporters, President Barack Obama is backing away from immigration changes he could make on his own. He is kicking the issue to House Republicans instead, despite mounting evidence they won't address the millions of immigrants living illegally in the United States.
This week, lawmakers from both parties summarily declared immigration-overhaul efforts dead after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor suffered an unexpected defeat at the hands of a fellow Republican who criticized him as too soft on the issue. But Obama still voices hope Congress will act.
"Our strategy has not changed," says White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri. "The impetus for action remains on the House."
It's an approach that's drawing friendly fire from immigration advocates who say Obama has been sitting on his hands long enough. For starters, they want immediate action to slow deportations.
But the White House wants to ensure that if and when an overhaul ultimately dies in Congress, Republicans can't claim it was Obama who pulled the plug. Instead, Obama hopes his strategy will allow Democrats down the road to put all the blame on Republicans for failing to deal with immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
It's not as if Obama could legalize an estimated 11.5 million people with a wave of his hand.
Last month in the Oval Office, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson presented him with a basket of options he'd developed after the president personally ordered a review of how he could make deportation policy more humane, said a senior White House official. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity to describe a private meeting.
Johnson's options were narrow and would affect only small groups of immigrants facing deportation, the official said — a far cry from the across-the-board freeze many immigration advocates are demanding.
Even so, Obama directed Johnson to hold off. Republicans were arguing that if Obama acted unilaterally, he would prove he can't be trusted to enforce immigration laws and would doom prospects for the legislative overhaul he so badly wants. So Obama decided to wait until it was certain House Republicans wouldn't act during a narrow summertime window before the midterm elections.
For many lawmakers, that window closed this week. Cantor was trounced in his Virginia primary by an obscure, underfunded professor who had accused him of supporting "amnesty" and open borders. Cantor denied that, but no matter. Members of both parties said Republicans would draw a clear lesson: GOP voters will punish anyone who doesn't take a firm stance on immigration — even the House's No. 2 Republican.
"I think immigration is dead for the rest of the year," said Rep. John Fleming, a conservative Louisiana Republican. "I wouldn't be surprised if it ends it for the entire term of President Obama."
On the night after Cantor's shocking defeat, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough huddled with top Democrats in House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's Capitol suite to assess whether that was true and to plot their path forward. Joining the session were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democratic half of the "Gang of 8" that wrote and passed a bipartisan immigration overhaul last year. Obama sent his legislative liaison, Katie Fallon, and his domestic policy chief, Cecilia Munoz, across town for the meeting, according to several Democratic officials.
Over Capitol-shaped cookies and chocolate mousse left over from a reception honoring Kathleen Sebelius, the former Health and Human Services secretary, the Democrats agreed to stay the course, the officials said. The assumption was that Cantor, who had hardened his immigration stance after being attacked by his opponent, actually had been more of a hindrance than a help in getting a bill to the House floor.
The Democrats' hopes have been bolstered now that it's increasingly likely that Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy will succeed Cantor as speaker-in-waiting. His two main potential challengers for the post bowed out as support began coalescing behind McCarthy, although a third challenger entered the race Friday. McCarthy's California district is more than a third Hispanic, and he has been supportive in the past of the idea of changing U.S. immigration laws.
Still, McCarthy's own inclinations on immigration could prove less than decisive if rank-and-file Republicans decide that after what happened to Cantor, it's too risky to be perceived as soft on immigration by the tea party and other conservative parts of the Republican base.
But if the summer comes and goes with no action in Congress, Obama will be under more pressure than ever before from immigration advocates to take substantial action to assist immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
"The president's decision could not be harder," said Gabriella Domenzain, who ran Hispanic media outreach for Obama's re-election campaign. "Regardless of what he does, he's going to get flak and it's not going to be enough."
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report. Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP