Washington Watch: Cantoring through Washington

Boehner’s greatest fear is that his deputy will try to do to him what he and others in the GOP House leadership tried to do to Gingrich in 1997.

eric cantor (photo credit: Courtesy: United States Congress)
eric cantor
(photo credit: Courtesy: United States Congress)
Shortly after last year’s congressional election, Rep. Eric Cantor met with Binyamin Netanyahu in New York and told him that as the incoming majority leader of the House of Representatives, he would have the prime minister’s back. Don’t worry about Barack Obama, he said, I’ll be there for you.
John Boehner, his one-time mentor, probably wishes he could count on such loyalty from his No. 2. It is no secret around Capitol Hill that Cantor wants to move up to the top job, and he’s a man in a hurry.
A line Cantor put in his high school yearbook – “I want what I want when I want it” – seems to guide him still.
Howard Fineman, a veteran political analyst, said at the height of the debt limit crisis, “Cantor has spent months undercutting Boehner.”
Cantor is the only Jewish Republican in the 112th Congress and, as majority leader, the highest-ranking Jew in Congressional history. Since his arrival on Capitol Hill in 2001, it’s been widely assumed he would like to be the first Jewish speaker. He has strong pro-Israel bonafides and considers Netanyahu a friend, but even so, it is unprecedented for a congressional leader to tell the head of a foreign government he would stand with him against the president of the United States.
A Cantor spokesman said that wasn’t exactly what he meant, but that “Eric stressed that the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the administration.”
Confused loyalties appear to be a problem for Cantor, according to many Capitol Hill denizens. Boehner, 61, has his base in the old guard, and Cantor, 48, is a leader of the more ideological hardliners and Tea Partiers. These would seem like complementary qualities for the leadership, but instead the two men are seen more often as rivals.
At several critical points during the debt crisis, Cantor seemed not only out of synch with the speaker, but to be deliberately weakening him.
THE CRISIS was not financial, but political and manufactured by several dozen far-Right ideologues willing to send the nation to the brink of default in order to embarrass the president and put cutting spending and taxes above creating jobs and boosting the country’s economic recovery. They had an ally in Cantor, who opposed the “grand bargain” Boehner was negotiating with the president for a wide-ranging deal to cut spending and close tax loopholes. The president has praised the speaker’s willingness to compromise, calling him “a good man who wants to do right by the country.” The unspoken reference to Cantor was clear.
While trying to cut a deal with the White House, Boehner found his deputy, Cantor, “openly distancing himself from, and positioning himself to the right of, his boss Boehner – a maneuver that struck some as odd, some as shifty and others as downright treacherous,” John Hellemann reported in New York magazine.
When the president asked in a national address, “How can we ask a student to pay more for college before we ask hedge fund managers to stop paying taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries?” it was more than rhetorical. Cantor is known as the top defender and protector of hedge funds and the investment community. The Washington Post reports that last year alone, “his two fundraising committees took in nearly $2 million from securities and investment firms and real estate companies,” and he is expected to do as well or better this year.
Under Cantor’s prodding, Republicans rejected any compromise and could barely pass their own draconian bill, which was dead on arrival in the Senate.
Even though Obama was ultimately forced to accept a deal he’d opposed – cuts in spending programs dear to the Democrats with no “revenue enhancements” – it was cut in the Senate and Boehner had to swallow it. Boehner had been close to a deal earlier, but Cantor walked out on negotiations with the vice president, dissed the president in another White House meeting and pressed Boehner to pull back from a deal that included some revenue enhancement. An aide said Cantor was just being “a passionate advocate” for his views; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called him “childish.”
CANTOR SHOWED Boehner who has more clout in the Republican caucus, and that has to make the speaker nervous about keeping his job. Boehner’s greatest fear is that his deputy will try to do to him what he and others in the GOP House leadership tried to do to speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997. The coup failed, but Boehner, chairman of the Republican Conference, lost his post and went into the wilderness for several years. He has no interest in returning there.
Another scenario has Cantor jockeying for position to be the Tea Party faction’s choice for next year’s GOP vice presidential nomination – especially if the party nominates for the top slot someone to the left of Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin.
For the Virginia man in a hurry, that may be the quickest route to the national stature Cantor clearly craves.
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