Eric Cantor: Giving the GOP Back Its Mojo

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Alex Wong / Getty

Representative Eric Cantor, with (from left) Representatives Peter Roskam, Kay Granger and Kevin McCarthy on Feb. 12

Representative Eric Cantor has a giant mounted photo propped like a canvas on a chair in the corner of his office in the Capitol. The image seems like an innocently iconic one — a shot of the National Mall from Congress — until a staffer explains that it's the view from the Virginia Republican's old office when the GOP controlled the House, and it's there to serve as a daily reminder of what he's working toward: regaining the majority.

Toward that end, Cantor — the No. 2 House Republican behind minority leader John Boehner — has been busy of late. The party's chief vote counter whipped his colleagues into united opposition of President Barack Obama's stimulus plan. Taking on the relatively unpopular congressional Democrats is one thing, but flagrantly opposing a wildly popular new President is risky, especially when any payoff could take years. But the move energized the GOP for the first time in a long while, inspiring six Republican governors — all rumored 2012 wannabes like Cantor himself — to threaten to decline some of the stimulus money. (Read "How to Know When the Economy Is Turning Up.")

The opposition heightened Cantor's profile as the Newt Gingrich of his generation, a wonky, partisan bomb thrower who can rake in well over $300,000 in a single fundraiser, as he did last week. The Richmond, Va., Republican, who likes to remind folks that he holds James Madison's seat in Congress, is one of the few rising stars in a party struggling to reinvent itself. But at 45, the baby-faced Cantor is hardly new to the scene. A player in House leadership for seven years, he has raised more than $16.5 million for himself and his colleagues in the past three election cycles — the carrot to his ideological stick when he's keeping his conference in line.

As Congress returns from its midwinter break and Obama readies his first joint address to Congress, Cantor and the rest of his party are grappling with how to approach the rest of the President's agenda this year — housing and foreclosures, financial markets re-regulation, the budget, universal health care and green jobs. The key in opposing the stimulus, Cantor says, was offering a credible alternative. "Our members in the House really rallied around a forward-looking, smarter, simpler stimulus plan," Cantor says. "We took a very positive, constructive view on where the stimulus should be, and when the bill that rolled through the House missed the mark the way it did, it demonstrated that the thought behind the majority's bill was not to be a stimulus bill; it was to be a spending bill. And going forward, we'll be using that as a model."

Of all Obama's impending legislation, however, the stimulus was the most likely to draw bipartisan support: members from both sides of the aisle and voters alike agreed that the economy desperately needed a boost, and the package included the largest tax cut in U.S. history. After Capitol Hill this week deals with the final component of Obama's economic rescue plan — a housing program that, while largely achieved through Executive Order, will feature a bankruptcy provision long opposed by the GOP — Obama's focus will turn to implementing his campaign agenda, which is by definition more ideological. (See the top 10 financial collapses of 2008.)

Cantor believes the one lesson the Obama Administration took from his orchestrated opposition was that it must work harder to reach out to the GOP. Many Democrats argue the opposite, saying the stimulus fight proved the futility of the new President's attempts to achieve a measure of bipartisan consensus. Stripping some objectionable measures (like family-planning aid for states and money for cleaning up the National Mall) from early versions of the House plan, they point out, won over absolutely no House Republicans.

The White House drew a different lesson, says one senior Administration official. In digging in their heels against such popular measures as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, the White House believes the Republican leadership is becoming increasingly out of touch with what Americans want. The stimulus vote "ends up isolating them because it puts them in a different position than their core constituency groups," the official contends, referring to business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, "and it puts them in a different position than Republican governors and mayors, the vast majority of whom supported it. There's only so long you can do that." (See 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.)

Cantor bristles when asked about taking an opposing position from business interests on the stimulus plan. "I knew about the endorsements from some of the business groups for sure, but their obligation is not to the voters and the people of this country like mine is," he says. "I feel that my obligation is to be a prudent guardian of taxpayer money."

And on the big issues like health care and regulatory reform, Cantor says both sides must come together. "I think, obviously, the challenges that face the American people are enormous," he says, "and because it is an equal-opportunity challenge, it's not just Democrats or Republicans that suffer, it's all of us. I believe that President Obama and the Democrats will work with us because the stakes are just that high." He also emphasizes the large areas of agreement between Dems and Republicans on upcoming legislation, such as the need for an austere budget (though Cantor opposes letting President Bush's tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans lapse, as Obama intends); the expansion of employer-provided health-care insurance rather than single-payer government health care; and a commitment to renewable energies while keeping the door open to increased oil and gas drilling. But agreeing on the broad goals of some of these items is a far cry from agreement on a final bill, and it is hard to imagine mass GOP support for any of these Obama initiatives. (Read "The Year in Medicine 2008: From A to Z.")

Democrats still hold out hope for bipartisanship because, unlike the rushed stimulus plan, these massive programs will take months to go through the committee process, where minority members can amend the measures. "And then what happens — unless the Republican Party is making a conscious decision not to participate, to say no to everything — is you'll get bipartisanship regardless of what the leadership wants," the White House official says.

Cantor says he knows he can't block everything coming through — otherwise the GOP risks being labeled the party of obstruction. (Just look at the Republicans' four-decade stint in Siberia after they tried to block much of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.) But he also won't simply roll over for Obama's agenda. In offering constructive criticism and viable alternatives, negotiating when possible and walking away when necessary, Cantor believes he's found the path back to that office with the spectacular view of the Mall.

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