For White House, Cantor's defeat eliminates an irritant but brings little joy

The Associated Press

Following his defeat in the Virginia primary Tuesday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., tells reporters he intends to resign his leadership post at the end of July, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 11, 2014. Cantor lost to tea party challenger David Brat, who campaigned in opposition of loosening immigration laws. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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By JULIE PACE, AP White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON (AP) — For years, the White House saw House Majority Leader Eric Cantor as a chief driver of Republicans' staunch opposition to nearly all of President Barack Obama's agenda. Now, Cantor's stunning primary loss seems likely to make politics even more difficult for Obama.

Rather than opening a pathway for the president, Cantor's defeat could push Republicans more to the right and harden the House GOP's hostility toward the White House, virtually dooming Obama's efforts to pass a legacy-building immigration bill or other major legislation.

Robert Gibbs, a longtime Obama adviser, said any glee at the White House over Cantor's defeat was "quickly replaced by the reality that this is the end of anything productive getting done legislatively in Congress either this year or maybe for the next several years."

Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, was soundly defeated by his tea party-backed opponent, a little-known economics professor named David Brat, in Virginia's GOP primary Tuesday. Despite being massively outspent by Cantor, Brat rode a wave of public anger over calls for more lenient immigration laws, reducing the prospects that already reluctant House Republicans might take up a bill this year.

The day after his defeat, Cantor announced he would serve out his term but resign his leadership post this summer, sparking a flurry of maneuvering among GOP lawmakers eager to take his spot.

Cantor threw his support behind Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House GOP whip and third-ranking leader. Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas also made clear his interest in being considered when House Republicans vote on a new majority leader on June 19.

Cantor's surprise defeat was accompanied by a steady stream of gloating commentary from congressional Democrats and party operatives who saw the downfall of a top Republican leader as a coveted prize in this midterm election year. Yet, Brat, the winner of the race, promises to be even more uncompromising than Cantor.

The White House sought to dispel the notion that Cantor's loss dealt a major blow to the president's second term aspirations. Obama drew laughs at a Democratic fundraiser when he mentioned there had been an "interesting election" in Virginia, but took issue with pundits who said the politics of immigration now seemed impossible.

"I fundamentally reject that and I will tell the speaker of the House he needs to reject it," Obama told about 40 big-dollar donors in suburban Boston.

Cantor has compiled a solidly conservative voting record during his seven terms in office, but he was sometimes viewed with suspicion by tea party activists who said he had been in Congress too long and was insufficiently committed to blocking immigration legislation.

Under different circumstances, the White House likely would have cheered the defeat of Cantor, who long has been a thorn in Obama's side. Their relationship got off to a rocky start just days after Obama's inauguration, when the new president chided Cantor for pushing a GOP-backed proposal for tackling the economic crisis. "Elections have consequences and, Eric, I won," Obama reportedly said at the time.

The Virginia Republican became a deeper irritant to the White House after the GOP took control of the House in 2010 and Washington plunged into a series of fiscal fights. The president and Cantor had a particularly tense exchange during an August 2011 meeting on the debt ceiling, with the lawmaker telling reporters that the president stormed out of the room, a description the White House disputed.

But it was more than those frosty interactions that irked the White House. Obama's advisers frequently claimed that Cantor undermined deals Obama struck with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, insisting on more conservative positions and throwing negotiations into chaos.