Eric Cantor's Moment of Reckoning

The ambitious majority leader represents a conservative wing of the GOP, and his future could depend on how the debt-limit talks proceed

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The day of reckoning on the debt ceiling is coming, and for no one in Congress is it more portentous than for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. A political figure of unarguable talent and ambition, the Virginia Republican could one day pursue any number of jobs: speaker of the House, governor of his home state, U.S. senator. Some Republicans believe that Cantor fantasizes about being the nation's first Jewish president.

Whatever his long-term goals, the next several weeks will go a long way toward deciding Cantor's future. The unifying thread in his debt-ceiling machinations the past four weeks has been to burnish his credentials as the leading free-market conservative in the House. To attain his political ambitions, Cantor must not let that newly forged impression become tarnished. And because Washington doesn't know and cannot see the debt-ceiling endgame, Cantor's ability to help Speaker John Boehner negotiate a deal that can pass the House and satisfy conservatives towers over his future.

When Boehner put Cantor in the budget talks with Vice President Joe Biden, his image on economic issues was solid but not sterling. When Cantor walked out of those talks because he opposed a White House push for tax increases, his stock rose among conservative activists. When he privately questioned (and in the mind of some House Republicans recklessly undermined) the $4 trillion deficit-reduction deal that Boehner had begun to negotiate with President Obama, his stock gained even more value among conservatives. After sparring with Obama during contentious budget negotiations, Cantor became a movement darling. He is the driving force behind House passage of its cut, cap, and balance bill that thrills conservatives. Without Cantor, hard-core conservatives believe that that measure would never have made it to the floor or become the centerpiece of GOP debt-ceiling orthodoxy.

"He has clearly emerged as the conservative on free-market economic issues," said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a grassroots coalition that pushed lower taxes and lower federal spending before the tea party existed. "Cantor's become the 'go-to' guy. There's no question about that."

Phillips is not just any conservative activist. He staunchly opposed Cantor, then a state delegate, when Cantor ran in 2000 for the Republican nomination in Virginia's 7th Congressional District against state Sen. Stephen Martin. Cantor won by 263 votes, and Phillips's group, the Faith and Family Alliance, used robo-calls and direct mail to question Cantor's "values" and to describe Martin as the "only Christian" in the race. For years, Phillips considered Cantor a political enemy (and Cantor felt the same way). Not anymore. Phillips told National Journal that many grassroots free-market conservatives--the ones wrestling for power within GOP state parties and at the national level--now view Cantor as their biggest ally at Republican leadership tables. "His actions have endeared him to the free-market movement," Phillips said. "He's come under withering fire, and a lot of people appreciate that."

Some of that fire has come from within House GOP ranks. Privately, many see Cantor's actions as self-serving and shortsighted--cutting Boehner's legs out from under him without warning or a larger strategic goal than his own self-promotion. On K Street, GOP-friendly lobbyists watched Cantor's actions with dismay and went to House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and asked him to intercede. Old-guard House Republicans and even some freshmen worried that the story line of a Cantor-Boehner split was creating an image of division that Democrats and Obama were able to exploit. They also fretted that Cantor's stubborn opposition to tax increases made the party look petty and small in the eyes of independent voters--a sentiment now reflected in public polls showing a steady decline in the GOP's standing the longer the debt crisis drags on (which is one reason the "grand bargain" has come back to life).

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Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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