By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009
On the House floor Thursday, Republicans registered their unanimous opposition to President Obama's budget proposal. Led by Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), the GOP adopted a simple and oft-repeated mantra: The Democrats' fiscal blueprint "spends too much, borrows too much and taxes too much."
For House Republicans, relegated to the minority 27 months ago, unity will be key, but Boehner and Cantor have not always spoken with one voice. The questions the GOP confronts as it awaits the heart of Obama's agenda -- on health care, climate change, financial regulatory reform and other big-ticket items -- are whether it can offer a cohesive alternative to a popular president, and whether two leaders with very different styles and ambitions can work together to shepherd the party back to power.
During the budget debate, which ended in a near-party-line vote, Cantor and Boehner were in agreement on the strategy -- both endorsed the idea that the House GOP had to produce an alternative budget -- but differed on tactics. Recently, both men stood with their fellow leaders at a news conference to unveil a budget "blueprint," which was widely panned in the media for its lack of details and specific numbers.
Privately, Cantor and the lawmaker tasked with writing the GOP budget, Rep. Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), had urged the party to hold off going public until it could produce a finished product. Both men wanted a more detailed proposal with dollar figures that would make it a more defensible document. Boehner and House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) disagreed, hoping to counter as quickly as possible Democrats' charge that Republicans are "the Party of No." The result was a botched rollout and bad press.
The men also split on the proposal last month to tax the bonuses of American International Group employees, with Cantor voting for the bill and Boehner voting no. That measure divided House Republicans as well, as did the financial bailout votes last fall.
Boehner, 59, has been in Congress nearly two decades and is known for blunt talk, backslapping and reliance on private conversations and personal relationships to get his way. Cantor, 45, has been in the House eight years and is both more polished and more cautious than Boehner; a near-constant presence on cable news shows; and frequently described as destined for bigger things.
Some of Boehner and Cantor's stylistic differences can be attributed to the fact that the latter is on the upward curve of his political career and the former has probably reached his apex. The two men have different goals and different ideas for how to reach them.
But Republicans who know both men well insist that their differences are not hampering the party's overall efforts.
"We're in the minority right now, and I don't think it's a problem that we have disagreements," Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said. "We're not making law."
Friction between House leaders is commonplace. Cantor's predecessor as whip, Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.), had an uneasy relationship with Boehner. Before that, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) got along, but Hastert constantly battled the perception that DeLay was the real power behind the throne.
And the team at the helm when the party assumed power in 1995, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), was riven by jealousy and backbiting from Day One.
No one suggests that the tension between Cantor and Boehner has reached that level or even that any personal animosity exists between the two men. They are not personal friends, but they are not enemies either, associates say.
"I think they both complement each other," said Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.), the Republican policy chairman. "Boehner tends to be laid back, and the whip's job is not to be laid back. Eric is very methodical, and he has to be."
McCotter, an avid music fan, said creative tension was integral to the success of many of the best bands, and while it does exist in the current GOP leadership, "this isn't Lennon-McCartney in 1969."
Boehner has made clear that he views Cantor as the face of the next generation of GOP leaders, and Cantor has given no indication that he plans to gun for Boehner's job. Cantor could have mounted a challenge for the minority leader post at the start of this Congress, and he might have won, but he chose to run for whip instead.
"There could have been a big battle last time, and there wasn't," Nunes said.
The phrase "rising star" was attached to Cantor almost immediately after he was elected to the House in 2000. By 2003, he was in the leadership as chief deputy whip. Before Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate last summer, Cantor was the beneficiary of a brief vice presidential rumor boomlet, one that his political team did nothing to discourage.
Cantor has courted the media, meeting with small groups of reporters and appearing frequently on television. His unusual profile -- a Jewish Republican with a Southern accent -- has garnered him plenty of media attention over the years. Boehner, though he gets along well with reporters and performs the media duties necessary to his job, has never given the impression that he wants a strong national profile.
Even in fundraising, the two leaders have different strengths. Boehner has a network of relationships on K Street. Cantor, meanwhile, "has an East Coast connection, a Florida connection and a California connection that is very appealing," said Rep. Pete Sessions (Tex.), who heads the House GOP's campaign committee.
On Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave a preview of what the House's agenda will look like after Congress returns from a two-week spring recess. The schedule will be heavy on legislation dealing with the financial crisis, including bills on predatory lending, credit card reform and other populist measures with the potential to split Republicans the way some other economic measures have.
If the GOP cannot maintain a united front on those issues, taking back the majority in 2010 or 2012 will be an even greater challenge, and members may want change at the top, either elevating Cantor to replace Boehner or getting rid of both of them. The best-case scenario for both men is to never have to face each other.
"Boehner is hoping that in the next two Congresses we can get the majority back," Nunes said, "and then everybody wins."