Cantor emerges as player and a pain in debt talks

Posted July 14, 2011, at 9:30 p.m.

WASHINGTON — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has become both a key player and big pain to more seasoned negotiators in the White House talks over how to keep the government paying its bills after next month.

“Eric, don’t call my bluff,” President Barack Obama warned late Wednesday after a dramatic back-and-forth with the Virginia Republican that made some in Cantor’s party wince. “Enough is enough.”

Not for Cantor, second-in-command to Speaker John Boehner who is widely assumed to aspire to the House’s top job. The testy exchange with Obama left Washington bubbling with speculation about whether the self-styled “young gun” had shot his own credibility in a roomful of political veterans.

“I try to be as respectful as I can,” Cantor said in a telephone interview Thursday, explaining that he was only trying to understand a difference in spending cut proposals. In contrast to Wednesday’s tiff, the White House meeting Thursday was described as “composed and polite” by a Republican aide familiar with the session.

The 48-year-old lawyer and father of three has made a career of confrontation with a brash Southern style that chafes opponents and to some extent has strained his relationship with Boehner. However unseasoned his style, Cantor is building support among the no-compromise faction of Republicans who want big spending cuts and an end to Obama’s health care law.

Cantor grew up amid Republicans in Richmond, Va., where his father owned a real estate firm and served as the state treasurer for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign. The future congressman entered politics his freshman year at George Washington University when he interned for former Rep. Thomas Bliley. After law school and nearly a decade in the Virginia House of Delegates, he was elected to Bliley’s House seat in 2000.

His penchant for persuasion and fierce partisanship started early.

Democrats are fond of touting his quote from a high school yearbook: “I want what I want when I want it.”

During four terms in the statehouse, Cantor’s advocacy for business and corporate interests earned him the nickname “Overdog.”

By all accounts, he has almost no hobbies and few interests outside elections, policy and his family: wife Diana, also a lawyer, two sons and a daughter.

Cantor does like James Bond movies, and like Agent 007, clearly thrives on the rush of a good fight.

There have been many.

His tough partisanship in the 2004 campaign led the state Democratic party chairman to call Cantor an “attack dog” for President George W. Bush, who was running for re-election.

In 2007, it was Cantor who offered an amendment to draw attention to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s request for a “luxury jetliner,” an effort to brand the San Francisco congresswoman as extravagant. Pelosi’s staff staunchly denied that, saying the House Sergeant at Arms had requested that she fly in the same military aircraft as her predecessor, former Speaker Dennis Hastert. Still, the image was hard to shake.

Cantor’s relationship with Boehner, too, has been delicate. The Virginia Republican won favor with senior members of his party as the House GOP’s vote-counting whip. In one cherished victory, Cantor headed the whip team that ensured no Republicans voted for the $800 billion-plus stimulus bill in 2009.

But their styles are very different, and their staffs are not close. Boehner is a cigarette-smoking, golf-playing dealmaker from a blue-collar background who is regarded with deep affection by members on both sides of the aisle. He is well aware that Cantor, Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan view themselves as a new generation of GOP leaders.

That was the theme of a book they authored about how they would run the House in the future, titled “Young Guns.” At the book party last year, Boehner wove some trademark charm into a reality check.

“The three of them know that my job is to make sure that they’re well-qualified and ready to take my place,” Boehner said with a semiserious grin, “at the appropriate moment.”

That moment is not yet at hand. Pressed by Cantor this week for details, Obama said he had given them to Boehner.

Boehner has sought to show he’s not threatened.

Putting an arm around his protege Thursday, Boehner cast them as a team.

“We have been in this fight together,” the Ohio Republican said at a news conference. “We’re in the foxhole.”

But Cantor’s building up to it. He’s using the debt talks to raise his profile, holding briefings with reporters on the daily sessions and recounting the provocative comments he made during them.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, initially impressed with Cantor’s honesty but now “disappointed” by his behavior, said in a Senate speech Thursday that Cantor shouldn’t be at the bargaining table. In a statement later, Reid said through a spokesman that Cantor had been “nothing but a disruptive force over the course of these negotiations.”

“Well I’m sorry he feels that way,” Cantor said Thursday a few hours before the group was to convene again at the White House. “I am trying to work with Speaker Boehner to get the best possible policy for this country.”

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