Why Eric Cantor's Absence Is Reason for Hope for the Fiscal-Cliff Talks

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Once a major thorn in the side of House Speaker John Boehner, the majority leader has fallen into line after a struggle for dominance.

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Remember the debt-ceiling fight? President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner tried to put together a big deal on taxes and spending, only to have the whole thing fall apart -- largely because Boehner couldn't unify the fractious, unruly House Republicans around the prospect of compromise.

If you think it all sounds frighteningly familiar in light of the last few weeks' fiscal-cliff talks, you're not alone. But there's a major difference that close watchers of the process have noticed: Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a constant presence in the July 2011 talks, is nowhere to be seen this time around.

The change is a meaningful one. Cantor was cast as the bad cop in the debt-ceiling fight. As the spokesman for the Tea Party freshmen, he pushed Boehner away from making a deal -- at one point even contradicting the speaker in front of Obama, a move both the White House and Republicans took as a humiliating slight.

This time, Cantor's only role has been as a staunch supporter of Boehner in his talks with the president. The change is the result of a behind-the-scenes battle for dominance between the two men, which Boehner won decisively. And for those trying to figure out whether a deal can be reached in the final days before the fiscal-cliff deadline, Cantor's low profile is a very good sign -- a testament to Boehner's strengthened position as he undertakes the tricky task of rounding up reluctant Republican votes for a tax increase.

During the debt-ceiling talks, Cantor, an ambitious 49-year-old from Richmond, Virginia, saw internal political advantage in positioning himself as the voice of the Republican freshmen, the Tea Partiers, and the staunchly conservative wing of the GOP caucus, a top House Republican staffer told me. "No one saw that as very helpful," the staffer said. "He has a much lower profile now. He's really backed off whatever jockeying he was doing before, which got to be such a sideshow."

This time, Cantor hasn't been part of the direct negotiations. In part, that's because these talks are being conducted differently; they've mostly consisted of one-on-one communications between Obama and Boehner, a structure that has also cut Vice President Biden out of the loop. But it's also because Cantor has, quite deliberately, not been invited to take part, by either the speaker or the White House.

Instead, Cantor has taken on a behind-the-scenes role. Where a year-and-a-half ago he ferried the conservatives' message to Boehner, drilling home the idea that a plan involving raising taxes could never get enough votes to pass, now he shuttles in the opposite direction, arguing Boehner's case for tax hikes to often-dubious caucus members. Publicly, he issues statements of support; privately, he counsels unity.

It's a rather dizzying about-face, one only partly explained by the differing tenor of the two sets of talks. Another factor in the change: A calculated, months-long campaign by Boehner to assert his primacy within the caucus, amass internal political capital, and marginalize threats to his power. Cantor's current submissive pose is in part a tacit acknowledgment that Boehner succeeded in outmaneuvering him.

Cantor's stock with his colleagues began to drop during the primaries, when his super PAC raised hackles for the impolitic way it took sides. In a member-on-member House primary in Illinois, the YG Action Fund's backing of freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger over veteran Rep. Don Manzullo disgruntled other senior Republicans; in the Senate primary in Indiana, the group's support for incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar over his successful challenger, Richard Mourdock, offended the conservative grassroots.

"When you're the majority leader and you pick fights like that, you splinter your support, especially when you don't have a perfect record," said a Republican consultant who works closely with the House GOP. "Don't do things that shrink your coalition and then have you losing."

While Cantor was making enemies, Boehner was making friends. He barnstormed the country in the run-up to the general election, tirelessly campaigning and raising money for vulnerable members -- and earning their loyalty in the process. "He was doing event after event, a really heavy lift," a House GOPer said.

Boehner has also carefully cultivated Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, weakening his onetime loyalty to Cantor. And since the election, the speaker has shown a willingness to punish those who cross him, most notably when he booted two rebellious conservatives off their committees.

That last move, as well as Boehner's continued willingness to make concessions to Obama, have set grassroots conservatives howling, from talk radio to right-wing activist groups like the Club for Growth. But taken together, Boehner's maneuvering has substantially strengthened the hand of a man who took power in 2011 as a decidedly weak Speaker of the House.

Cantor has also had his own reasons for falling into line. His reputation as a troublemaker did no favors for his personal image, one he's sought to soften by giving fewer press conferences and inviting "60 Minutes" to interview him at home, according to the Washington Post.

But having once been cast as disruptive, Cantor now risks being seen as irrelevant. Aides to both Cantor and Boehner, who say the constant Hill chatter about their relationship is overblown, insist that's not the case. "This negotiation is a different process than the last one," Cantor spokesman Doug Heye told me. "Our leadership is united, because we believe that's the best way to achieve the best result possible."

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel noted that the speaker and majority leader "meet almost every day" and that Cantor was present when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner delivered the administration's opening offer to Boehner on Nov. 29. "This is probably the most unified leadership team the speaker's seen in all his time in the House," Steel said.

Now, as the fiscal-cliff talks reach a fever pitch, Boehner has undertaken a risky plan: bringing to the House floor Thursday a "Plan B" package that raises taxes on income over $1 million and cuts spending. The idea is to put the ball in the court of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Obama administration, both of whom have called the $1 million threshold unacceptable.

Conservative groups are livid at the Plan B proposal -- but there's no single, prominent voice speaking for them in the House now that Cantor's no longer the standard-bearer for the loyal opposition. If the millionaire tax hike passes, it will be a major accomplishment for Boehner, and a sign that the fiscal-cliff talks could be headed for resolution after all.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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