Defections Don’t Loosen Cantor’s Grip on the Whip

Posted October 9, 2009 at 6:15pm

When 44 House Republicans broke with their leaders last week and voted for a Defense authorization measure carrying hate crimes language, it was the latest in a string of defections that have occurred under the watch of Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

Cantor’s colleagues say that although he is not a vote-counting wizard like some of his predecessors, he doesn’t have to be — his ability to raise large sums of cash from his perch as the No. 2 House Republican makes up for it.

“In the minority, it’s a far different whip operation,— said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), a member of the Cantor whip team. “We aren’t going to get to 218, so when you are trying to rebuild your brand, you focus on the issues that people care about.— The GOP only needs to keep unity on a handful of key votes, Hensarling said; for the rest, the whip operation is less important.

“I think he’s doing fine,— Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said. “Although it’s easier to be the whip in minority than in the majority because you know you are going to lose.—

Cantor’s recent vote count miscalculations stand in stark contrast to how the GOP leadership started out the 111th Congress.

Faced with an immensely popular president and public concern over the economy, Cantor helped keep a dispirited House Republican Conference together on a series of high-profile — and politically perilous — votes.

Over the first few months of the year, Republicans voted in lock step against the stimulus bill and the budget resolution.

But since those victories, the GOP has appeared to be a more fragmented caucus.

Prior to the vote on the Defense authorization conference report, Cantor made a point of publicly declaring his Conference unanimously opposed to the bill because it included hate crime provisions that have enraged the conservative wing of the party.

“We don’t need to whip the fact that people are upset with the process, and there is unanimity in the fact that this has not been a process deserving of the people in this country,— Cantor said hours before the vote.

But 18 Republicans were already on record as supporting the hate crimes language — and others refused to vote against a defense bill.

Many of the Republicans who ended up voting for the conference report had close ties to the military or had voted for the hate crimes legislation previously.

“When the Democrats can lose over 40 votes and still win, whipping everything doesn’t make sense,— said Rob Collins, Cantor’s deputy chief of staff. “The perversion of the rules of the House by the majority forces us to be extremely strategic.—

Collins said it was unfair to measure every major vote by the unanimous opposition to the budget and the stimulus.

“Eric Cantor cares a hell of a lot about whipping. It’s his job. That’s why on kitchen table issues we have been extremely successful,— Collins said. —The expectation of zero [defections] on every vote is a false expectation.—

Chief Deputy Whip Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) said that he wasn’t familiar with Cantor’s whip operation but that vote counters overestimate their counts at times to discourage dissidents.

“You have to be careful not to use that too much,— Crowley said.

Another recent battle that raised eyebrows was Cantor’s effort to block a suspension bill that would extend highway funding for three months. The effort confused some Republican Members and caused friction with others.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) was initially behind Cantor’s move to bring down the suspension bill in order to force Democrats into taking a vote on a gas tax, according to several Republican sources.

One Republican source said Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) told Boehner that voting against the funds could cause trouble for some Members, and Boehner tried to get Cantor to change his mind.

While Cantor didn’t whip actively against the transportation authorization, LaTourette whipped for it. The bill passed by a wide margin and attracted half of the Republican Conference.

One GOP Member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, attributed the blunder to “Cantor being Cantor.—

Another Republican lawmaker said, “I think that this whole business of being Mr. No — I think you have to get in the way of some things, but I don’t know you have to get in the way of everything.—

But a third GOP colleague suggested that Cantor is not an ideological bulldog.

“He’s not naturally a grenade-throwing whip type,— the lawmaker said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He’s naturally a more thoughtful paint-the-vision kind of guy.—

“He is the hardest-working guy in leadership,— the lawmaker added.

Few members of the Republican Conference expressed concern about the lack of unified votes, saying Cantor’s fundraising prowess and hardworking nature are more important attributes in the deep minority.

In the 2009-2010 cycle, the Cantor Victory Fund raised $948,051 as of Aug. 31.

“He’s a rising star,— Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said. “It’s tough to be known as a Congressman, but among those that are politically aware, the Cantor name already has a national impact.—

Kirk added, “Given his background, not just being from the East Coast, but with strong ties with the Jewish community, he instantly gets the challenges that Republicans face in the upper Midwest and the Northeast.—

Another Republican Member suggested the missteps point to a lack of leadership Conference-wide and are not necessarily Cantor’s responsibility.

“I find, after three years in the minority, we are just that, the minority,— the lawmaker said. “Where do we stand on the issues? There is no game plan.—