A long-simmering rivalry between the top two Republicans in the House has tumbled into the open, with far-reaching implications for deficit-reduction negotiations with the White House.
Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) are at odds over President Obama’s call for a massive deficit-reduction package to address fiscal problems and provide for an increase in the country’s $14.3-trillion borrowing limit before an Aug. 2 deadline.
In private talks with the White House, Boehner favored a large package as part of pragmatic political deal-making. But Cantor, speaking for staunch conservatives in Congress, is opposed.
In a briefing Monday, Cantor downplayed the divisions, insisting repeatedly that he and the speaker were “on the same page.” But friction between the two has grown obvious, reinforcing months-old questions over who controls House Republicans.
“I don’t think Boehner would want to serve in a foxhole anytime with Eric Cantor,” said a Republican strategist and former leadership aide who asked not to be identified while commenting on an intraparty rivalry.
Obama praised Boehner in a nationally televised news conference Monday as he warned that a budget accord would only grow more difficult with time. “Do it now,” Obama said. “Pull off the Band-Aid. Eat our peas.”
But Cantor and the political right seem to be dictating the course of talks. Their pressure forced Boehner over the weekend to abandon his support for doing “something big” on the federal budget, and cast Cantor as the champion of the conservative flank.
“Boehner is facing a similar problem to that Gingrich faced in 1995-1996 — he can’t control the rebels in the caucus who helped him gain power,” said Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer, referring to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “The debt ceiling has turned into as much of a test for the GOP and its internal leadership as it is for which party is stronger.”
Cantor’s ascent puts him at a risky crossroads. At some point, an agreement on the deficit-reduction package will pose questions about his influence: Did his hard-line stance help or hurt Republican goals? And will the “tea party” activists he courted revolt if he supports a compromise?
Cantor favors a smaller deficit package, made up primarily of spending cuts. Obama has proposed new taxes for the wealthy, which both Boehner and Cantor oppose. But Boehner was willing to work with the administration on a broader package of tax changes before talks fell apart.
As long as Boehner remains House speaker — which he is expected to do as long as he wants — Cantor’s partnership will be under scrutiny. At a closed-door meeting of Republicans last week, one rank-and-file lawmaker reportedly urged colleagues not to criticize leaders publicly, lest the GOP appear in disarray.
At the Capitol, visitors to Cantor’s office must pass through a stately, arched hallway where the sign reads: “John A. Boehner, House speaker.”
The proximity of the Virginian’s office to the speaker’s suite may be less a symbol of a close relationship than of Cantor’s aspirations to occupy the No. 1 spot someday.
When side by side, Cantor appears to be the brainier and more ambitious of the two. At 48, he is a political enthusiast, easily animated. Boehner, 61, wears his power more subtly, behind cigarettes and an old-school cool. The Ohioan mocks Cantor’s Italian loafers.
In many ways, it is a one-way rivalry. Yet because power is ever-shifting in Washington, Cantor’s ascent has put Boehner on guard. The House is overwhelmingly conservative, especially with the tea party’s advent.
Cantor declined to challenge Boehner for the speaker’s job when the GOP won control of the chamber last fall, despite rumors that he would.
But as the tide of conservatives arrived in the House this year, Cantor aligned himself with them. He has lavished attention and campaign funds on other members. In what was widely seen as an affront to Boehner, he published a book with two other rising GOP leaders, “Young Guns,” setting out the principles of “a new generation of conservative leaders.” Boehner made hardly a cameo.
The older vanguard in the Republican House stands by Boehner. Cantor is sometimes seen as less personable. But even among veteran lawmakers, the pressure from the right is so strong that it influences their loyalties.
“If there’s a popularity contest right now, Cantor wins it,” said one GOP aide granted anonymity to speak freely on the topic.
On Sunday night, as top congressional leaders met with the White House, Cantor did most of the talking for the GOP, according to aides familiar with the meeting.
“I can tell you that so far, Congressman Cantor has been running the show on the Republican side — almost exclusively — and he has about played out his hand,” said a Democrat who was in the White House meeting Monday and who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the closed meeting.
But others suggested that Boehner was simply speaking briefly, and was comfortable delegating.
“Boehner is someone who doesn’t feel compelled to be the center of attention all of the time,” said David Winston, an advisor to the House leadership who says the men work well together.
The speaker decided earlier this year to put Cantor in charge of an initial round of debt talks with the White House. It was an opportunity to delegate, and it represented a test for Cantor, who excelled at the task.
Vice President Joe Biden, who led the talks, expressed surprise at how much he enjoyed working with him.
“For real,” Biden said. “The guy’s smart as hell.”
But Cantor withdrew from the talks last month, objecting to what he described as Democratic insistence on tax increases. He quit the morning after Boehner met, unannounced, with Obama. Cantor disclosed his decision in an early morning interview, alerting the speaker just hours before the news broke.
To the conservative GOP flank, Cantor had emerged as their champion.
But Cantor is taking a risk by appearing to counter Boehner in a chamber that values team players. When lawmakers chose a new speaker to follow Gingrich, his top rival, former Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, was seen as too divisive. They eventually chose Rep. J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois.
“When you’re on a team, everybody should be trying to help the quarterback,” the Republican strategist said. “Nobody likes the guy who looks like he’s trying to call his own plays.”
Peter Nicholas in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.