Republican lawmakers frustrated with Boehner-Cantor soap opera

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) are being prodded by their House GOP colleagues to work through their battle-scarred relationship.

Republican lawmakers said they are frustrated with the perceived tension between the Speaker and his top lieutenant, especially heading into an election year that will bring a fierce battle with the Democrats for control of the House.

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The stinging payroll tax defeat has left many in the House GOP exasperated, with some publicly and privately questioning their leaders. A GOP insider said the tensions between Boehner and Cantor loyalists will reverberate into next year, and that the House Republican Conference could be in utter disarray in January and February.

Members are zeroing in on the Boehner-Cantor relationship, which has had its ups and downs.

At times, they have been together, effectively challenging President Obama and congressional Democrats. At other times, they have been divided and forced to address the perception that they are rivals.

Five days after House Republicans charged into the payroll tax fight without much of a political strategy, Boehner conceded defeat during a news conference Thursday.

The Speaker appeared at the media briefing alone shortly after declaring surrender to rank-and-file members in a one-way call.

His solitary mea culpa spoke volumes, especially because several days prior, a GOP lawmaker implored the leadership to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with one another.

Several lawmakers told The Hill that Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) was one of the first members to speak at a nearly two-and-a-half-hour closed-door conference meeting Monday night, with a simple request: unity at the leadership table.

A member who attended the meeting paraphrased Cole’s remarks: “I’ll be with you from the first vote to the last one — the only thing I’m asking in return is that you guys be unified. I don’t want to read stories that suggest three of the leaders are on one side and the Speaker’s on the other … the leadership table is to resolve disputes, and if you guys can’t come to a unified decision there, we’ll never be a unified conference.”

Cole’s call for unity came after an angry 90-minute conference call Saturday, during which GOP lawmakers attacked the Senate and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for returning an amended payroll tax cut bill to the House and then skipping town.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) said: “I’ve been around here long enough to see the way things act. I was — I rarely use the word — shocked that the Senate would send us that piece of trash.”

As House Republicans battled their GOP counterparts in the Senate this week, they remained perplexed by the split in their own leadership.

According to various media reports, based on a readout from a “source on the call,” Boehner, Cole and Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) praised the two-month deal Saturday, while Cantor, House GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) sided with the freshmen in ardent opposition.

Even though lawmakers loyal to Boehner and Cantor who participated in the call disputed that characterization, the reports caused a rift among lawmakers, who questioned the motivations behind the leak.

“That’s outrageous because it’s not even true,” a Republican lawmaker told The Hill. “Tom Cole said at conference on Monday night: ‘To the person in this room who leaked … I don’t know which one of you it was, but if you are going to quote me as saying something ... please get it right next time.’ ”

The version of events provided in the leak did not make Boehner look good, and he has repeatedly denied backing the Senate measure.

Sources said, however, that Boehner did imply on Saturday’s call that he wanted the temporary extension to move through the House.

“We have to pick our fights,” Boehner said, according to a Republican on the call.

The leak weakened Boehner’s hand because it appeared he was on an island battling against the rest of his leadership team.

According to a lawmaker familiar with the situation, Cantor privately denied that his office had anything to do with the leak.

The episode was the culmination of a year fraught with high-stakes legislative brinksmanship and different ideas on how to lead a conference antsy for change, amid deal-making with a Democratic-controlled Senate and White House.

In the spring, news reports suggested there was daylight between Boehner and Cantor on the government showdown.

Both were asked about their relationship around that time in separate interviews on Fox News. Boehner characterized it as “wonderful,” and called speculation that he and Cantor were jostling for power “nonsense.”

Cantor said he and Boehner worked well in the minority and in their new majority.

Then, during the summer, Boehner and Cantor were major players in the high-stakes negotiations on raising the debt ceiling.

According to an October profile of Cantor in New York magazine, the Virginia congressman, who had engaged in negotiations with Vice President Biden for weeks, was blind-sided when he learned from the chatty Democrat that Boehner had started private talks with Obama. The next day, Cantor walked away from the bipartisan, bicameral talks, throwing the negotiations into chaos.

Weeks later, tension between Boehner and Cantor intensified as Democrats adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy that sought to portray the Speaker as the adult in the House GOP.

The awkward tension prompted Boehner and Cantor to hold a news conference, where the Speaker put his arm around the smiling majority leader.

“Let me just say, we have been in this fight together, and any suggestion that the role that Eric has played … has been anything less than helpful is just wrong,” Boehner said at the July briefing.

Republicans who know Cantor and Boehner acknowledge that the two men are not close, but attribute some of the conflict to problems between their staffs and their loyalists in the conference.

Boehner and Cantor do not hash out conflict — perceived or otherwise — face-to-face. Boehner, many members have said, is not a fan of personal confrontation, and he would oppose efforts to avenge his “shoddy” treatment by fellow GOP leaders, the Republican insider said.

Others attribute the leadership drama to mere differences of opinion.

For example, Boehner told his troops Monday that he wanted to find a way to “vote yes” on the payroll tax cut to fend off critics who would accuse Republicans of being Grinch-like at Christmastime.

Cantor, however, advocated repeatedly for voting down the Senate’s amended package. That, he argued, would send a message that the House won’t accept a take-it-or-leave-it approach to governing, lawmakers said.

Boehner’s stance won out, as the House subsequently voted to move to conference, not technically kill the Senate legislation.

Still, rank-and-file members grumbled that Boehner could have avoided the entire dust-up — and other such incidents — if he wasn’t so concerned with “making everyone happy,” a GOP lawmaker told The Hill.

“John is a guy that leads by trying to get a consensus … ‘Is it OK if I do this? Is it OK if I do that?’ … But you can’t do that and be a leader,” the member said.

Sources close to Boehner said he did lead on the payroll tax cut extension when lawmakers in the conference were saying they wanted to let it expire, along with unemployment benefits.

“He said that anybody who thinks that the end of the year comes and we let the payroll tax expire is crazy,” one source said. “He said, ‘Listen, you don’t understand, this is going to be done and it’s just a question of how or when.’ ”

Some said Boehner and Cantor have let the tail wag the dog, criticizing their leadership of the volatile House GOP conference. These sources maintained that they should have cracked the whip and ordered the conference to accept the Senate measure.

But a GOP aide said such a move would have been politically impossible, noting that more than 50 House members railed against the Senate bill during Saturday’s call. And even though the argument against the two-month stopgap failed to connect with the public, GOP leaders and the rank and file agreed that the policy is badly misguided.

Asked for comment on this article, Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said: “The leadership team worked together to resolve a very difficult issue in the best way for our team and the country.”

Cantor spokeswoman Laena Fallon refrained from commenting on any internal friction.

“House Republicans will always take a stand for lower taxes for middle-class families and small business people,” she told The Hill. “The fact that Republicans and Democrats are now agreeing on cutting taxes and cutting spending shows how much House Republicans have changed the culture in Washington. There’s more work to do.”