The Almost Invisible Final Days of a Once-Forceful Leader
Eric Cantor’s slow fade toward the exits of the House majority leader’s office is one day from its official completion. But as a practical matter he’s been almost invisible for several weeks.
And at the Capitol, there are no outward signs that one of the most important congressional jobs is changing hands after 43 months — and one stunning primary outcome in central Virginia.
The wet blanket of quiet is another reminder of how Congress, as much as any other prominent American institution, makes quick work of people who lose their clout. “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business,” is one of the institution’s words-to-live-by aphorisms. Another is, “You may be a rooster today, but you’ll be a feather duster soon enough.”
Cantor’s colleagues say they decided to forgo any public ceremony to mark the end of his time as the No. 2 Republican, official as of midnight Thursday. Rather than a round of speeches now — which might come off as funereal so close to his involuntary separation from power — an organized tribute on the House floor will be arranged toward the conclusion of the lame-duck session, when Cantor’s 14-year congressional career will be at its end.
But Republican lawmakers won’t wait until December for their invitation-only wake. The incoming majority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, is hosting a party for Cantor on Wednesday night at the Capitol Hill Club. On the last evening before lawmakers take off for five weeks, the GOP’s fusty official hangout should be packed with get-away energy. (McCarthy picked the much hipper Blue Jacket at the Navy Yard for the bash he tossed Tuesday night honoring the biggest loser in the post-Cantor leadership shuffle, outgoing chief deputy whip Peter Roskam of Illinois.)
As an interim eulogy staffers assembled a schmaltzy, if brief at just 126 seconds, video about Cantor’s time as majority leader. Shown at Tuesday’s weekly meeting of the House Republican Conference and later distributed to congressional reporters, the highlight reel was long on Cantor’s efforts to soften the rough edges of his fractured caucus. It offered a reminder of his pride in being the only Jewish Republican in Congress. But, predictably, the tape didn’t even hint at his rocky passages as a legislative strategist, his fundraising prowess or his complex relationship with Speaker John A. Boehner.
Cantor has not appeared at a GOP leadership news conference since June 11, the day after he was defeated for renomination, when he described the timing of his departure from the House high command.
June 20 was the last time he represented the Republicans in the week-ending floor colloquy, when the party leaders trade scheduling information for the coming week — along with some of the most theatrical partisan jousting over policy that the public ever gets to see. All this month, McCarthy has stepped up early to fill one of the majority leader’s more important messaging roles.
Since losing to college professor Dave Brat in the year’s biggest electoral surprise, Cantor has participated in floor debate only twice, offering brief remarks before passage of uncontroversial bills to revamp worker training programs and extend adoption incentives.
When he announced he would stay as majority leader through June and July, he said he felt obligated to manage what’s usually the House’s busiest legislative period of the year — and promised to push hard to secure passage of all 12 annual appropriations bills. But only one more spending measure has moved since, leaving five undone. And Cantor hasn’t appeared anywhere near the negotiating or leadership strategy sessions on either of this week’s marquee bills, one to prop up the veterans’ medical care system and the other to address the child migrant crisis along the Mexican border.
Perhaps the clearest signal of all that Cantor has started to check out: After skipping all three roll calls on Monday, he’d missed 30 votes since his defeat, for an 81 percent attendance rate since the June 10 GOP primary in Virginia. In the previous 13-and-a-half years, he had participated in 96 percent of all recorded votes.
Members tell CQ Roll Call they take the 51-year-old Cantor at his word that he’ll serve out his term before starting the next, presumably much more lucrative, phase of his career.
Despite being spotted walking along K Street and in the Hamptons in recent weeks, there is no hard evidence he’s close to lining up something as a lobbyist or on Wall Street. He hasn’t filed any of the paperwork required from a sitting member who’s in serious negotiations with a potential employer, although in practice those forms are rarely turned in before a lawmaker is on the cusp of resigning to take a private-sector job.
But tourists, or Hill denizens who have been asleep the past seven weeks, could be forgiven for believing that Cantor still remains at the center of the action. Wooden plaques with his name in hand-lettered gold leaf still mark not only his ceremonial corner office across the hall from the GOP cloakroom, but also a more expansive suite that opens on to Statuary Hall. (The signage changes are planned for the August recess, when carpenters also will prepare the bigger of those offices for the new majority whip, Steve Scalise of Louisiana. McCarthy has decided to remain one floor below, in the rooms he’s been using as whip but which had previously been the majority leader’s suite since the late 1990s.)
After the GOP lost the House in 2006, J. Dennis Hastert hung around for almost a year before resigning his Illinois seat. But because of his status as the first former GOP speaker to remain in the House in four decades, he was allocated a small Capitol office with a great view down the Mall.
That spot is occupied by Boehner’s press shop these days, and there’s no spare Capitol office where Cantor might squat. So from September to December, he’ll be confined to just three rooms, totaling 1,000 square feet, at 303 Cannon. It’s right around the corner from the grand staircase that leads, quite literally, to the House’s most prominent exit.