In a breach of bedrock conservative principles, House Speaker John A. Boehner laid out a proposal Tuesday to allow tax rates to rise for Americans making more than $1 million a year.
And standing side by side with Boehner as he outlined what many Republicans consider an apostasy — but what Boehner argues is the only way to spare most people from a tax increase — was House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who has worked hard in recent months to play the loyal lieutenant.
“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.
Even so, Cantor has tried to soften his tone since the debt fight, shifting his attention this year to a handful of bipartisan legislative priorities that had a chance of passing even in an overheated campaign year, including a measure to clarify insider trading rules by lawmakers.
In an effort to improve his image last year, he invited “60 Minutes” to interview him — along with his wife, mother-in-law and son — at his Richmond home.
And he stopped holding a weekly gaggle with print reporters, an event that often resulted in a day of Cantor headlines. Now his appearances on the Hill are more often limited to those in which he is at Boehner’s side.
His off-the-radar role this time has come partly because of a change in dynamics from the White House. Neither Cantor nor Biden was included in a Nov. 16 meeting at the White House between Obama and congressional leaders that began this round of negotiations.
Cantor and Biden have a friendly relationship and have met since the November election, but their talk was limited to breaking a partisan impasse over the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, not the fiscal debate, an aide said. Each of Obama’s one-on-one meetings and phone calls since November have been with Boehner alone.
Cantor’s aides insist that despite his low public profile in the current talks, he has been deeply involved at each step as an adviser to Boehner.
He is the only House member to hold a one-on-one meeting each week with the speaker.
He also participates in a daily strategy session with Boehner, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and top committee chairmen.