Obama-Cantor relationship sours

Getty Images, Greg Nash

How are relations between President Obama and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.)? Well, it's complicated.

Earlier this month, the House majority leader stood by Obama's side as the president signed a pediatric research law championed by Cantor. It marked a rare case of ideological opposites joining forces to move legislation in an election year.

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Just two weeks later, the kumbaya moment was old news. The powerful politicians this week traded barbs over which party is to blame for the House's failure to consider immigration reform legislation — a spat suggesting the odds are long that Congress will overhaul the system in 2014.

The back-to-back episodes highlight the hot-and-cold swings that have marked the relationship between Obama and Cantor over the years. The two have shifted from being unlikely allies on issues as diverse as trade and voting rights to prickly foes on more bread-and-butter issues, such as healthcare and the economy.

The relationship between the two men is closely watched, especially because some in the nation's capital think Cantor will succeed House Speaker John Boehner if the Ohio Republican retires at the end of this Congress.

The recent pendulum swing also underscores the tightrope act both parties are attempting this year in the face of low public opinion toward both Congress and the White House. Party leaders want to energize their bases by delivering sharp attacks across the aisle over the other sides' policies. But they also want to show a cooperative face, if only to win favor from the many independents who view Washington as a partisan quagmire where dollars get wasted and nothing gets done.

Obama and Cantor joined forces to enact the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act. Named for a 10-year-old Virginia girl who died of a brain tumor in October, the bill provides $126 million for pediatric disease research.

Although every House Democratic leader had opposed the measure, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), Obama signed Cantor's bill into law on April 3.

The comity was short-lived. This week, after Obama called Cantor to discuss ways to move immigration reform, the Virginia Republican responded with a blistering statement accusing the president of having "no sincere desire to work together."

Cantor said an earlier statement from the White House, which had marked the one-year anniversary of the Senate passing an immigration bill and chided House Republicans for not following suit, is an indication that Obama "still has not learned how to effectively work with Congress to get things done."

"You do not attack the very people you hope to engage in a serious dialogue," Cantor said.

Obama responded Thursday, characterizing the conversation as "very pleasant" and suggesting Cantor was feigning indignation to bolster his conservative bonafides.

"You know, you're always kind of surprised by the mismatch between press releases and the conversation. I wished him happy Passover," Obama said during a White House press briefing. "And what I said to him privately is something that …  I've said publicly, which is, 'There is bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform … and that Congress should act, and that right now what's holding us back is House Republican leadership not willing to go ahead and let the process move forward.' "

"It was a pretty friendly conversation," he added.

A Cantor aide said Friday the majority leader would never have issued his immigration statement if Obama hadn't blamed Republicans, just hours earlier, for the impasse.

"The way to work with Congress is not to attack us in public and then call us in private," the aide said by phone.

There have been many other ups-and-downs marking the Obama-Cantor history.

The bad:

• At a 2010 ObamaCare summit at the White House, Cantor brought the enormous bill, which is anathema to Republicans, as a show of the GOP's opposition to the sweeping healthcare reform law. With cameras rolling, Obama scolded Cantor for playing politics with the “prop.”

• In the summer of 2011, at the height of the debt-limit fight, Obama stormed out a meeting with Cantor and other leaders hoping to reach a deal. Before departing, Obama told Cantor, “Don’t call my bluff.”

• Later in 2011, Cantor huddled with his staff to discuss why the president “hates him so much,” according to a New York Magazine profile.

The good:

• Two years ago, in another election year, the two forces united to pass the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act, which rolled back certain securities regulations in an effort to encourage private funding of start-ups and other small businesses.

• As Obama has urged Congress to rewrite the Voting Rights Act in the wake of last summer's Supreme Court decision gutting the law, Cantor has emerged as an unlikely ally. The majority leader has been working behind the scenes in search of legislation that can satisfy all sides, even as a number of conservatives in the GOP conference insist that such changes are unnecessary. Still, Cantor has not endorsed bipartisan legislation on the issue.

• Obama and Cantor generally agree on trade promotion authority legislation that's opposed by many Democrats on Capitol Hill. Indeed, GOP leaders are urging the president to use his bully pulpit to rally more Democrats behind the bill.

The White House did not respond to questions for comment Friday. But the Cantor aide said there are other issues on which the two sides can unite to enact legislation, even as the elections inch ever closer, and the partisanship becomes more entrenched.

A bipartisan bill, sponsored by Reps. John Kline (R-Minn.) and George Miller (D-Calif.), to encourage the expansion of charter schools is one such opportunity, the staffer said.

"It's not a personal thing. This is about trying to get stuff done," the aide said. "We're more than willing to find common ground."