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).

Boehner wrapped his arm around Cantor last week to quiet the palace intrigue, a staged and somewhat awkward gesture that nevertheless seemed to do the trick. Now, Boehner and Cantor speak with one voice and attend all White House negotiations together. No more secret meetings between Obama and Boehner. On policy, it was never clear how committed Boehner was to the grand bargain. Many GOP leadership sources say that Boehner shared Cantor's antipathy. But Cantor has done far more to burnish his image as the voice of resistance, inviting interpretations that if he weren't there, Boehner might cave in to Democratic demands. Those close to the speaker say he doesn't take these maneuvers personally--Boehner remembers that he, too, was once a politician in a hurry who after only four years in Congress led the House GOP Conference under Speaker Newt Gingrich. But even Cantor's fans say that the perceived leadership tug-of-war has weakened Boehner and complicated his ability to strike a debt-ceiling deal.

Which means that Cantor soon will face a moment of choosing. The Gang of Six plan is not a bill, hasn't been scored by the Congressional Budget Office, and is in limbo. Obama and Boehner are negotiating a $3 trillion deal built almost entirely around spending cuts. If this deal takes center stage, Cantor's stock would soar higher. But if it falls to criticism from the left, the House might be faced with a take-it-or-leave it proposition centered on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's plan raising the ceiling, cutting spending by $1 trillion or more, and creating another deficit commission. Most free-market conservatives oppose the McConnell plan, as do many rank-and-file Republicans. But as August 2 and the prospect of default draw closer, Boehner will have to decide whether to bring the McConnell plan to the floor for a vote. Boehner's team said it will never move a bill that Cantor opposes. Can Cantor back the McConnell plan and start hunting for votes among skeptical rank-and-file Republicans and preserve his newfound fandom among conservative activists? "Any support of a McConnell-like abdication in the debt fight would be a defining moment in terms of credibility with conservatives," Phillips said.

Since Cantor will need those conservatives to sustain any political move he makes, the choice is not just about default or the McConnell plan. It's about his political future.

Image credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters