All the recent talk of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill hasn’t thawed the chilly relationship between House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
If anything, it has injected a new level of antagonism between the two leaders.
Pelosi declined Cantor’s invitation Tuesday to sit together during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Some declared it as a slight, although Pelosi insisted that was not the case. She said she had already arranged to pair up with Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.). Cantor’s allies said the Virginia Republican was making a sincere attempt to reach out to his Democratic counterpart.
At the same time, however, Cantor has emerged as the Republican majority’s lead attack dog, and Pelosi is regularly in his sights. He publicly criticized her earlier this week for not doing enough to engage with the GOP and “continuing to drive an ideological agenda just the same as she did over the last four years.”
Pelosi isn’t used to dealing directly with Cantor. As Speaker, she worked more closely with then-Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). Then-Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who now serves as Minority Whip, was Cantor’s counter on the Democratic side.
As one GOP leadership aide put it: “The relationship is basically nonexistent” between Pelosi and Cantor.
But in their new roles, the duo will be forced to interact more regularly, particularly as they manage floor operations.
From Cantor’s perspective, he has made every possible effort to engage with Pelosi. He said he tried to meet with the California Democrat three times: when he was elected whip, during the health care debate and to coordinate a bipartisan jobs summit, which never got off the ground.
Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring said his boss wants to work toward having a better relationship with Pelosi.
“Eric is results driven, but at heart is a thoughtful, cordial guy,” Dayspring said in an e-mail. “He has a great rapport with Mr. Hoyer and would hope to foster a similar, positive working relationship with not only Leader Pelosi, but all of his colleagues no matter their disagreements on policy matters.”
So far, the two Members’ interactions have been limited to bipartisan leadership meetings on the Hill and at the White House, including when then-Speaker Pelosi was meeting with foreign heads of state.
Pelosi’s allies, meanwhile, point out that since Nov. 2 she has met numerous times with Boehner; they contend the Ohio Republican — not Cantor — is her counterpart. They also note that Pelosi met regularly with Boehner when she was Speaker, and they say she is more than willing to work with Cantor or any other GOP leader.
“She has a good working relationship with the Republican leadership, with Speaker Boehner. They go way back,” Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said. “And she looks forward to working with the Republican leadership, including Leader Cantor going forward.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly said it is important for leaders of opposing parties to work together, but the Virginia Democrat defended Pelosi’s position, pointing to his own experiences in dealing with Cantor.
“Given my experience, there are two sides to the story,” Connolly said, noting that Cantor rarely attends Virginia delegation meetings. “I’ve never had a substantive conversation with the gentleman.”
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel chalked up Cantor’s criticism of Pelosi as an attempt to distract from legitimate policy debates.
“If I’m Eric Cantor, I’d rather talk about who Nancy Pelosi sat with than who Republicans voted against,” the New York lawmaker said, referring to the State of the Union seating flap.
Even if Pelosi and Cantor don’t work closely, there are other members of the two leadership teams who do, Rep. Greg Walden said. “You find people you can work with and move forward and try to put things together,” said the Oregon lawmaker, who led the GOP’s majority transition team. “Lord knows we have a lot of work to do around here.”
On Tuesday, Cantor lunched with Hoyer in the Minority Whip’s Capitol office. The two Members, who have butted heads in the past, also lunched several times when Democrats were in the majority.
Walden defended Cantor, saying he has done a good job settling into his new role as Majority Leader.
“I see it as making a very articulate case for a point of view ... which by the way, represents after the last election a pretty good chunk of America and being forceful about it and direct about it,” Walden said. “Obviously, everybody is learning their roles. The people on the other side are learning their new roles. We’re learning ours, but I think it’s come off on time, on schedule and without too many blips along the way.”
Rep. Henry Cuellar said he thinks it’s important for the two sides, and their leaders, to find common ground, particularly on issues such as reducing the deficit.
“We ought to be able to have both parties get together,” the Texas Democrat said.
Yet for other Members, the Pelosi-Cantor relationship — good or bad — is of little consequence.
“People play their roles as they see most appropriate,” Republican Policy Committee Chairman Tom Price (Ga.) said. “It’s probably much ado about nothing.”