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The top two leaders of the new House Republican majority have been getting along well lately, but don’t expect the presumptive Speaker and Majority Leader to share a golf cart anytime soon.
Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) have appeared to be mostly on the same page over the past few weeks as they usher in an unusually large crop of freshman Republicans and prepare to take control the House.
However, the two have shared a tense relationship over the years, and outside Republican observers suggest they are likely to butt heads at some point as the 112th Congress gets under way.
Even before the elections, the two leaders appeared to be diverging on some issues, with earmarks being the most public. In October, Cantor called for a permanent moratorium on earmarks, effectively one-upping Boehner, who said at that time that the incoming Republican Conference would have to make that decision. On Friday, the pair teamed up to write a joint statement urging the president to support an immediate ban on the practice.
Two days after the midterm elections, Boehner said he supported a permanent ban.
“They both need to keep the right flank happy,” one Republican lobbyist said. “Cantor more so because of what he hopes to do in the future.”
The lobbyist added: “Maybe two years ago, Boehner would have been fighting Cantor off on his right flank to prove he’s as conservative. I just feel like he’s more comfortable now.”
One former leadership aide agreed Boehner would be less inclined to confront Cantor than he has been with other rivals in the past.
“As soon as he knew they were going to get a majority, he changed his profile to humble leader, statesman-like, accepting the election results,” the former Republican leadership aide said. “Cantor is freer to get a little more partisan. ... I think they are filling their roles pretty well at this point. You do sense a little tension, but I don’t see it spilling over into hostility at this point.”
Rob Collins, a former top Cantor aide, said both leaders are well aware that a fractured leadership team can hurt the entire Republican Conference.
“It’s probably the strongest I’ve ever seen them,” Collins said. “The way they operate is completely different but complementary.”
Boehner, in fact, had a front-row seat to the destructive power of a divided Republican leadership in the 1990s as the rivalry between Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Majority Leader Dick Armey (Texas) and Whip Tom DeLay (Texas) split the Conference into warring factions.
As DeLay exited Congress years later, Boehner was part of a messy 2005 battle against Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.) to replace DeLay as Majority Leader. Boehner won that contest and Blunt became Whip.
“They both have big jobs ahead of them, and maintaining the close and effective working relationship they have will be more important than ever,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.
Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring agreed.
“They have a symbiotic relationship,” he said. “Both recognize that a lot needs to be done to get people back to work, cut spending and return a sense of certainty to the private sector, and they will no doubt work together closely to deliver results.”
But several K Street observers don’t expect the harmony between Cantor and Boehner to last as the pressure of governing and scrutiny increases.
And one Republican strategist said the friction would likely begin because of Cantor’s ambition.
Several Republicans off the Hill pointed to Cantor’s absence from the National Republican Congressional Committee’s election night festivities as a foreshadowing of less cohesive times to come.
“Cantor is a climber,” one Republican strategist said. “He got to Congress and found himself in leadership. He’s a guy who wants Boehner’s job.”
Instead of joining Boehner and several other members of the House Republican leadership team as they huddled inside the Grand Hyatt late into the night, Cantor — who traveled into Washington, D.C., late Tuesday from his Richmond district — spent the latter part of election night in his office, calling and congratulating newly elected Members.
“I think it’s definitely going to come to light, and it’s going to be sooner rather than later,” the GOP strategist said.
The disconnect between the two leaders begins with their personalities, observers said.
Boehner’s laid-back attitude and methodical nature are counter to Cantor, who tends to favor a faster and, at times, flashy leadership style.
Some House aides said the tension between the two has been “overblown” and most of the fissures stopped at the staff level.
One aide argued that even those tensions have cooled as the leadership structure became more defined and Boehner’s ascent to the Speakership became inevitable.
Boehner has shown a willingness to reach out to Cantor and has embraced ideas such as his online budget-cutting initiative, YouCut.
While GOP aides and K Street observers criticized Cantor privately for releasing the book “Young Guns” weeks before the Boehner-led “Pledge to America” agenda project, Boehner praised the effort and toasted Cantor, Chief Deputy Minority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) at the book’s release party at a Capitol Hill restaurant.
While McCarthy was in charge of crafting the GOP governing document, the drive and the funding came from Boehner’s office.
One Republican lobbyist said Cantor’s aggressive approach is partly due to the fact that he is still trying to prove himself in the Conference and establish a national reputation.
Collins said the biggest challenges for the new leadership team will be keeping the lines of communication open and avoiding misunderstandings.
“Ideologically they are in sync. Their challenge will be managing the unexpected,” he said.