“The Democrats have one negotiator: the president. And we have one negotiator, and that’s the speaker,” Cantor (Va.) told colleagues at a GOP meeting at the Capitol last week, urging them to unite behind Boehner (Ohio) in the talks.
In the “fiscal cliff” drama, Cantor has been casting himself as a supportive bit player to Boehner, a contrast from the debt-ceiling showdown of 2011. At that time, Cantor had a starring role as a lead negotiator in high-level talks with Vice President Biden and as a chief antagonist to Obama, tangling with the president in one tense White House exchange.
But that role did not go well for Cantor. It neither strengthened the GOP’s hand in the fiscal crisis nor served the lawmaker’s image. He emerged with a taint of disloyalty toward Boehner and a new reputation, carefully stoked by Democrats, as the leader of hard-liners unwilling to compromise.
Now, Cantor is serving as the loyal lieutenant. First Boehner, then Cantor argued emphatically to fellow Republicans: If Republicans do nothing, taxes are scheduled to rise for all Americans at the end of the month, and the GOP’s goal must be to shield as many Americans as possible.
Even as Boehner continues negotiations with the White House on a broader deficit-reduction deal, Cantor said he would schedule a vote on Boehner’s new alternative to spare more than 99 percent of Americans of a tax increase.
Cantor’s role has been scaled back this time, in part by the White House, where officials have made clear that Obama thinks a deal with House Republicans would have to be reached directly between himself and the speaker.
But Cantor’s strategy also was designed to show unity among top House Republicans, in contrast to last summer, when the GOP was plagued by rumors — which aides insist were overstated — of tension between Cantor and Boehner.
“That’s bad for any majority leader,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), one of a group of Boehner allies who warned the speaker during the debt-ceiling talks that Cantor could move against him if Boehner accepted a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction that conceded too much. “You elect a team. The rest of the conference expects them to work together. And if the perception out there is that one is kind of nipping at the heels of the other, it’s not good for the leadership team.”
“ ‘Be careful,’ ” Simpson said he told Boehner then.
In the months after the debt talks, Democrats chose Cantor as a useful campaign foil, frequently labeling him as the face of Republican obstruction.The barbs angered Cantor’s allies, who said Democrats and the media treated him unfairly for making a principled stand in favor of spending cuts.