By Molly K. Hooper - 07/12/12 10:00 AM EDT
Tensions between the top two House Republicans have faded into the background of an intense election year.
GOP lawmakers who urged Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to move past their differences in 2011 have been pleasantly surprised that there has been more cohesion between their leaders this year.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) told The Hill that the conflict that hung over the first year of the House GOP’s majority has all but evaporated.
Asked if the tension seems to be gone, Conaway responded, “It is ... not only does it seem [to be], it is.”
He added that President Obama’s actions during this election year have also helped. “Nothing unifies Republicans like the president.”
Cole was one of the outspoken critics of his leaders in December 2011, when the perception of backbiting between Cantor and Boehner erupted during an end-of-the-year fight with the White House and Senate Democrats over extending Obama’s payroll tax cut.
During an intense, lengthy GOP conference meeting in the basement of the Capitol, sources told The Hill that Cole implored his leaders to work together.
A member who attended the meeting paraphrased Cole’s remarks at the time: “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.”
A little more than six months later, however, Cole’s opinion has changed dramatically.
“I just like the way things are coming together here,” Cole said.
Since the historic 2010 election, when Republicans regained the House majority, there has been an intense focus on the Boehner-Cantor relationship.
Last year the two leaders stepped on each other’s toes during high-profile showdowns with the White House. But this year, Boehner and Cantor have appeared to split up their duties more efficiently.
For example, Cantor took the lead on banning insider trading for Congress while Boehner handled the highway bill.
“They are both in their lanes and operating in their lanes, and neither one is interfering with the other,” Cole stated.
Conaway said, “They are on the same page as to what’s going on, what we’re bringing to the floor. I think they are just working well together, and they’ve got their staffs working well together — which is always the key. The principals can typically get along pretty well — it’s just making sure your staffs can maintain working relationships.”
Other sources close to Boehner and Cantor echoed Conaway, saying staff changes have contributed to the improved relations and teamwork.
During the debt-limit battle last summer, Democrats sought to highlight differences between Boehner and Cantor to gain leverage in the talks.
But when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last month sought to employ the tactic, the GOP response was swift and aggressive.
Reid at the time accused Cantor of trying to sabotage the economy by torpedoing the highway bill.
“You have heard, as I heard, that there’s a battle going on between Cantor and Boehner as to whether or not there should be a bill,” Reid said on June 5.
“Cantor, of course, I’m told by others that he wants to not do a bill and make the economy worse because he feels that’s better for them.”
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel quickly went on offense. “That’s bulls--t,” he said.
Steel’s rare use of on-the-record profanity highlighted the partnership that has formed between Boehner’s and Cantor’s offices over the last few months.
One lawmaker who spoke on background praised Boehner’s new chief of staff, Mike Sommers, and Cantor’s longtime chief of staff, Steve Stombres.
“There’s been a constructive outreach by both camps. I give Mike Sommers and Steve credit, because while there may have been people in each camp that weren’t inclined to let stuff go, I think that they worked constructively during the [recent staff] transition period and I think the lines of communication are open,” the source said.
While many in the GOP conference may be unaware of the internal staff dynamics, they are relieved that their leadership team is united and focused on retaining their House majority.
“I give them both high marks, and I think that’s the opinion inside the conference,” Cole said.
The true test of their relationship, however, could come during the lame-duck session. Lawmakers will be faced with a slew of politically difficult decisions on taxes, cuts to defense and the debt ceiling.
Boehner communications director Kevin Smith said, “The Speaker and majority leader are both focused on our jobs agenda and what’s best for our team, and they continue to enjoy an effective and productive working relationship.”