Boehner, Cantor Face First Dust-Up

Posted February 9, 2009 at 6:19pm

House Republicans have spent two weeks touting their unity on an economic stimulus package, but a testy confrontation caused by misspoken words reveals that behind closed doors, the bond between the top two GOP leaders is fragile.

Several GOP sources say Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and Minority Leader John Boehner’s (Ohio) relationship was put to the test after Boehner suggested at a Jan. 28 press conference that Cantor wasn’t whipping votes during the House debate on the economic stimulus measure. Sources say Boehner’s remarks, echoed at the press event by Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.), angered Cantor and prompted a “heated” confrontation between the new Whip and Minority Leader at the GOP retreat at the Homestead Resort in Virginia late last month.

Boehner, who sources say was unaware he had offended Cantor, approached the No. 2 Republican privately to make peace. Boehner and Pence later apologized to Cantor before the full GOP Conference for a “misunderstanding” over how aggressive the whip operation was in drumming up opposition to the stimulus package.

The spat resulted after Boehner, speaking about the solid GOP opposition to the Democratic bill, told reporters at that January press event: “It wasn’t like there has been some big whip operation to whip Members up against the bill. It just didn’t happen.”

Likewise, Pence said, “It would be accurate that there has not been a whip effort on this bill of any great extent.”

But Cantor had been keeping track of where Members were on the vote, and those close to him say he worked to ensure every Republican voted against the measure. The GOP’s unanimous opposition came despite several moderate Members waffling earlier in the week.

Boehner and Pence ultimately took back their characterizations of the vote. And in the wake of the dust-up, aides to both Boehner and Cantor have sought to tamp down the dispute as a simple miscommunication.

“Mr. Boehner has often said that this is the most unified leadership team he has ever seen — on either side of the aisle — during his time in Congress,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “Our focus is where it should be: on helping the American people, not wasting time on inside-the-Beltway gossip.”

Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring said, “We do not comment on private conversations.”

Still, sources say the incident, just weeks into the new Congress, illustrates that the Conference isn’t wholly unified and that rivalries exist.

“Their comments undercut the efforts of a lot of Members who worked to keep the party unified and on message during the stimulus debate,” one GOP aide said.

Boehner is certainly no stranger to intraparty squabbles. Yet he seems intent on keeping the peace in the leadership hierarchy, which comprises ambitious lawmakers who hope one day to hold the top GOP job.

After the Republicans suffered a second round of electoral losses last November, Cantor quickly became the Member most likely to challenge Boehner for the Minority Leader position. Instead, Cantor, then the Chief Deputy Whip, opted to assume the No. 2 job, succeeding his longtime mentor, Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.), who chose to retire from leadership altogether.

Without Cantor as a challenger, Boehner set about solidifying his power heading into the 111th Congress. He quietly worked to assemble the team, including calling on Pence, long a rival, and encouraging him to run for the Conference position — a move many say neutralized another potential competitor.

Aides have differing views over the latest incident between Cantor and Boehner, but several attributed it to the lawmakers’ raw political ambitions. They said Cantor, in particular, has a need for recognition after serving for six years as Blunt’s Chief Deputy Whip.

One of those aides added that Cantor’s intensity is likely to put pressure on Boehner going forward: “He is going to make Boehner work hard. He is not doing this to be No. 2.”