By Mike Lillis - 06/13/14 07:42 PM EDT
House Democrats anticipating the imminent change of leadership across the aisle are sounding a similar note: It can't get worse.
While acknowledging that Tuesday's staggering primary defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is hardly a catalyst for grand legislative accomplishments this year, many Democrats have also viewed Cantor as an obstinate and perennial barrier to any compromise on big ideas, issues as wide-ranging as immigration reform, voting rights, deficit reduction and emergency federal aid.
"Under the current leadership on the Republican side, we've had a shutdown of government. We have not passed immigration; we have not passed the Voting Rights Act, which has always been bipartisan," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday during a press briefing. "So, I don't know how things could get worse than the obstruction that is already here."
Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, delivered a similar message this week, portraying Republicans as a "deeply divided and dysfunctional" party "focused on doing mostly negative things."
"It’s hard to figure out how you can cause more gridlock than we’ve had," Hoyer told reporters Wednesday.
Cantor's primary loss Tuesday has stunned Washington, upended the Republicans' leadership structure and roused the growing sentiment, voiced by lawmakers and political prognosticators alike, that most major legislation is likely dead in the water ahead of November's mid-term elections.
Cantor's opponent, college professor and Tea Party-favorite Dave Brat, had never held office; had raised far less money than Cantor; and was seen as such a hopeless cause that even most Tea Party groups avoided his race. Yet he defeated the majority leader by 11 points, largely by portraying Cantor as a squishy conservative who was too willing to compromise with President Obama and the Democrats.
The outcome has emboldened Tea Party advocates, as well as like-minded lawmakers and candidates nationwide, who will apply only more pressure on House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to confront President Obama on his legislative priorities, rather than compromise with him.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), currently the majority whip, and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), the Tea Party preference, are vying to replace Cantor in a secret-ballot election to be held next Thursday. McCarthy is the favorite, and his allies say he's already mustered the support to win.
Labrador disputed that outcome Friday, telling conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that he would prevail.
"I am going to win," he said. "I’m already getting a lot of calls from people who are telling me that they’re switching their vote, that … they want more conservative leadership in the House."
Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), another Tea Party favorite, acknowledged that a run against McCarthy from the right would likely amount to little more than a symbolic protest.
"But, you know, [Dave] Brat was a protest, too," he added. "Things change rapidly around here."
Democrats have long been frustrated with Cantor's leadership style. In near-weekly colloquies with Hoyer, the Virginia Republican has repeatedly voiced his support for immigration reform and an update to the Voting Rights Act, to name just two bipartisan initiatives being urged by House Democratic leaders. But he has refused to bring those bills to the floor.
That disconnect has led Democrats to question Cantor's sincerity, particularly on immigration reform.
"I am not one of those who thought that Eric Cantor was an advocate for immigration reform," Pelosi said Thursday. "In fact, I thought he was an obstacle."
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, recently summed up the Democrats' discontent with Cantor.
"His credibility is really suspect," Grijalva said.
The Democrats are less sure of how McCarthy would approach the role of majority leader. They favor the California Republican over the more conservative Labrador, but in the wake of Cantor's primary defeat, they're also not holding their breath that Majority Leader McCarthy would usher in any new era of bipartisan cooperation in the House.
"Cantor was a little further to the right, was a little more extreme," a Democratic leadership aide said Friday. "But I don't think it matters. I don't think they're trying to get anything done. That was the lesson from Cantor: Don't even posture or pretend like you want to do anything."
Pelosi, for her part, says her approach to governing won't change much following the GOP's leadership shakeup.
"Whoever should be leader of the party is who has the support of their party," Pelosi said. "I myself work with Speaker Boehner."
This story was updated at 9:00 p.m.