House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

“I could absolutely work with her,” Cantor told me in an interview this morning. “She would be a real benefit for patients. Obviously she’s operating within a context, within the structure of a law that I didn’t support, but I do think she will bring to the job a perspective of the American health care system that has made it so great, a system that’s based on the private sector.”

Cantor’s warm embrace of Tavenner is a marked change from the reception from Republicans of current Medicare head Don Berwick. Many accused him of wanting to “ration” health care and seized on his remarks praising the British National Health Service. Berwick will step down as CMS administrator on Friday as his recess appointment would have expired by the end of the year.

The connection between Cantor and Tavenner is a personal one. The two have known each other since the mid-1990s, when he represented part of Richmond in the Virginia House of Delegates and she ran a major hospital in the city. Cantor estimates they’ve worked together for about 15 years now, most recently coordinating on Virginia-related issues, particularly Medicaid, as Cantor serves in the House and Tavenner oversaw Health and Human Resources for then Gov. Tim Kaine.

Like others I’ve spoken with, Cantor does not associate Tavenner with a specific policy agenda. He won’t hazard a guess as to what agenda she would push as CMS administrator, nor could he recall a specific policy issue the two had worked on together. He did note much of their work in the Virginia House of Delegates was “a very long time ago.”

But what he likes about Tavenner is clear: A lengthy history as a private sector hospital administrator. “I’ve always found her to be a real professional who understands the head for patient quality,” Cantor says. “She gained a full background in patients’ perspective. Having worked in the private sector, she understands the need for a robust private sector health care system that can’t be managed by a bureaucrat in Washington.”

He actually thinks she could even make the Affordable Care Act a little bit better in the eyes of Republicans who detest it. “She understands the confines within which she’ll work, under PPACA, which is a law I don’t support,” says Cantor. “A lot of Americans share my view and she understands that. I’m very hopeful she can work to better the outlook for all Americans.

Cantor says he hasn’t discussed Tavenner’s nomination with his Senate colleagues, nor would he predict what she would face in Senate confirmation hearings. “I spend enough time just trying to figure out how the House works,” he says. But he stands ready to defend her to members of his party in the other chamber. “I really expect great things from Marilyn Tavenner,” Cantor tells me. “We don’t share all our views on health care, but I’m confident Marilyn is someone I could work with.”

Across partisan lines on health care these days, kinder words are rarely spoken.