Spotlight not pointed at Cantor

Eric Cantor is playing a much different role in the GOP’s fiscal clash with the White House than he did during the tumultuous summer of 2011. 

At that time, he was at the epicenter of the strife between House Republicans and the White House to raise the debt ceiling. Irritated by Cantor at a White House meeting with congressional leaders on July 13, 2011, President Obama stormed out, pointedly warning the majority leader, “Don’t call my bluff.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) subsequently called Cantor “childish,” while Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) ripped him for being unyielding. The New York Times called Cantor the “Democrats’ New Bogeyman.” 

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More than a year later, the Virginia Republican is not front and center as the spotlight is on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Obama. Cantor has not been mute on the debt crisis by any means, however. He signed off on the GOP plan to deal with the fiscal cliff that was sent to the president and criticized Obama’s proposal seeking $1.6 trillion in tax revenue.

A source pointed out that Cantor was involved in the 2011 debt-limit talks at the behest of Boehner and subsequently the president, and that dynamic has not unfolded this go-round. 

Instead of being tapped as the GOP negotiator across from Vice President Biden on a commission to find areas of savings to pay for an increase in raising the debt limit, Cantor has played a behind-the-scenes role in forging a strategy for dealing with the fiscal cliff.

That has translated into fewer arrows in the back. 

Lawmakers say they notice subtle differences in Cantor, who until recently had a testy relationship with Boehner, and a penchant for making political waves. 

Cantor, unafraid to throw rhetorical bombs, initially took on the role of Tea Party sympathizer within the GOP’s expanded conference, setting him apart from Boehner, viewed as the more laid-back leader who was willing to cut a deal. 

Now, in the wake of a devastating election for Republicans, Boehner and Cantor are on the same page.

One Republican lawmaker told The Hill that Cantor seems to be more patient in his quest to one day become the Speaker given the current political reality: an unruly conservative conference, coupled with a Democrat-controlled Senate and White House. 

The summer of 2011 tested the Boehner-Cantor relationship. Cantor quit the talks with Biden’s group after the vice president told him about a secret meeting between Obama and Boehner. The Speaker had not briefed Cantor on it.

The two GOP leaders crossed swords again on whether to extend the payroll tax holiday late last year. 

Rank-and-file legislators have told The Hill that they’ve noticed a more united leadership team, especially as the nation approaches the fiscal cliff. 

Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper told The Hill that “we are a unified leadership team.” 

A leadership aide who weathered the rough waters between Boehner and Cantor said the leaders “are in lockstep now, even if they always hadn’t been before.” 

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While Cantor is not visiting the White House and briefing the press on a daily basis, he is very much engaged, working with his colleagues and talking to Boehner on a daily basis, a source close to Cantor revealed. 

Cantor’s skills as a vote-counter will be needed if and when a deal is struck. Cantor, a former whip and deputy whip, knows how to get members to “yes.” Any agreement will likely require all members of GOP leadership to whip the legislation.

Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, said Cantor has learned from the past. 

“Political setbacks are very educational … He’s doing what he has to do now. He’s very much aware of the stories of his conflicts with Boehner, and the stories about this ambition didn’t always make him look good. He’ll come across better if he comes across calmer, and he’s got the self-discipline to do that,” Pitney said.