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Just after 2 p.m. on Wednesday, something remarkable happened on the House floor.
Two bills negotiated by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) overwhelmingly passed the House in rapid succession.
The two men, best known for their years of confrontational sparring during weekly colloquies, have never enjoyed the close personal rapport Hoyer had with Cantor’s predecessor on the floor, now-Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Moreover, they have rarely struck bipartisan legislative compromises.
But their successful shepherding of these bills, particularly the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, shows they can work together when called upon to do so.
“It’s an unusual day isn’t it?” Hoyer joked, leaving the House floor.
Hoyer and Cantor have long worked together on matters relating to Israel, so the Wednesday passage of a Cantor-Hoyer resolution regarding the United States-Israel strategic relationship came as no surprise.
But the Export-Import Bank reauthorization marks the first major piece of legislation not related to Israel that the two leaders successfully negotiated. Unlike previous abortive negotiations on health care reform, and more recently deficit reduction, the two leaders worked for more than a month to find a compromise. That bill passed the House on Wednesday on a 330-93 vote.
Hoyer conceded that the two men have a hot-and-cold relationship, which he chalked up to the current political climate.
“Mr. Cantor is the leader of his party, and he wants to lead his faction. And the Republican party a lot of times recently is pretty divided, so he’s trying to manage that, and it makes it difficult for him to deal with me,” Hoyer said.
Cantor, too, pointed to the political divide as a factor limiting major bipartisan laws.
“There’s a divide in this town, and that divide has to do with tax policy, with health care policy, and perhaps those issues are going to be left to the election,” he said. “But there’s a lot of other things we can do to help grow this economy without having to spend money.”
He said the idea that the two don’t work well together is overblown.
“We’ve always had a good personal relationship, really, despite what, perhaps, you or others have liked to write,” Cantor said. “We’ve always had a very straightforward and frank relationship and ability to communicate to one another and know where one another is.”
Numerous aides on both sides of the aisle confirmed a coolness to the relationship, citing several possible explanations. Among them, an age gap (Cantor is 48 and Hoyer is 72), a difference in style (the all-business Cantor clashes with the affable Hoyer) and their divergent constituencies.
“They’re not chummy,” one former senior House aide said. “Maybe an arms-length sort of relationship.”
Despite the fact that both men said they would be happy to work together on more issues, aides said the Ex-Im Bank success should not be viewed as a sign of a warming relationship.
“I think that they both have important constituencies that they were working on behalf of, so I don’t think they looked at each other one night at the dinner table and said, ‘You know what? There are some things that we have in common,’” one GOP aide said. “They bit the bullet and worked together despite their differences, not to heal their differences.”
Notably, the Ex-Im Bank deal pitted stalwart GOP groups against each other, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in favor and the Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America opposed.
One veteran GOP aide speculated that after the ups and downs Cantor has had this year, he might be looking to demonstrate his ability to pass legislation and be an effective leader. “Cantor wants some notches on his belt, and right now, he needs Steny to do that,” the aide said.
On that topic, Hoyer agreed. “The Republican Party obviously now is deeply divided on Ex-Im,” Hoyer said. “Obviously, Mr. Cantor knew he couldn’t get the votes on his side.”
That theory was proved to be true when 93 Republicans voted against the Ex-Im Bank deal. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, one of the “no” votes, said conservative voices were squelched in the process.
“Does it concern me that we’re negotiating with Democrats? We’ve been doing that for the last 16 months. Does it concern me? Yes. Does it surprise me? No,” the South Carolina Republican said. “Conservatives in both the House and the Senate went to leadership on both sides and said, ‘Look here’s some conservative reforms.’ And we were told very politely on both sides of the building, ‘Thanks very much, but we don’t need your votes.’”
The climate led one former senior House aide to speculate that even Hoyer and Blunt, who famously spent time together outside work as genuine friends, could not work together today.
“Even if Blunt was Majority Leader, they would maybe not have found more opportunities to work together because of the positions of the two caucuses,” the aide said.
John Stanton contributed to this report.