House Speaker John Boehner is being asked on TV about his political ally and deputy, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, but TV viewers don’t know the tangled back story, which involves rumors of rivalries and a history of GOP infighting.
“Eric Cantor, hows your relationship with him?” asked Fox host Bill Hemmer to Boehner in his first interview since party leaders struck a spending deal to avert government shutdown Friday night.
“Good! You know there’s a lot of people who want to write a lot of things about Eric and I, and the jostling for power. It’s just nonsense. Eric and I have this wonderful relationship, we understand each other. We walk through all these battles together. And I’m grateful for his leadership,” Boehner said.
On Sunday, Fox anchor Chris Wallace asked Cantor the same thing.
“There has been a lot of speculation in this town about your relationship with Speaker John Boehner. And there is this image that you’re kind of itchily waiting in the wings for him to leave and for you to be able to succeed him,” Wallace said, “Did he cement his position as speaker and his support inside the Republican Caucus by the way he handled this whole CR debate?”
“Yes. And John Boehner and I have had a relationship, we were in the minority, we’re working together very well in the majority …We have a very good working relationship. And we’re going to work together to see that these things happen,” Cantor said.
“So you back John Boehner as speaker of the House?” Wallace asked.
“Absolutely,” said Cantor, laughing.
“One hundred percent?” Wallace asked.
“Absolutely. And I’ve been on this show, Chris, probably a year ago saying that, six months ago saying that. And I’ll say it again now,” Cantor said.
One reason Wallace pressed Cantor is that Washington insiders, especially on K Street, have been buzzing about the tension between the two leaders.
For instance, at the height of the drama over a potential government shutdown, one Republican lobbyist close to Boehner’s camp called The Daily Caller and said the rift was threatening to break into the open under the strain of the high-profile fight between Boehner and the president.
According to the source, Cantor was pushing a hard conservative line in internal deliberations. Boehner’s camp viewed these urgings with suspicion, thinking they were a way to make Boehner look weak. The word “coup” was used.
Other sources on and off the Hill confirmed Cantor was pushing the conservative line, at least in relation to Boehner and GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy. Speculation about the rift is abundant, but details are scarce.
Boehner knows a thing or two about coups. He was involved in a failed coup on then-Speaker Newt Gingrich in the late 1990s and ultimately booted from leadership. Gingrich in a recent interview with TheDC said he doesn’t bear Boehner any lingering animosity.
Boehner and Cantor’s interactions on averting government shutdown are murky in part because of one largely unnoticed aspect about the negotiations last week: Republicans outside of the leadership offices knew literally nothing about what was happening in the talks besides what Democrats were saying in the press.
For instance, Rep. Jim Jordan, head of the Republican Study Committee, the conservative caucus of House Republicans that comprises a majority of the conference, told reporters Friday that in a members-only meeting earlier that day, Boehner had provided no details about the status of the negotiations.
High-ranking Republican lawmakers and operatives chafed at flying blind through the talks, and some are blaming the dynamic on Republicans’ mixed messaging at the height of the fight.
On Friday, as Democrats launched a ruthless, coordinated attack on the GOP, saying Republicans were holding the negotiations up over a policy rider that defunds Planned Parenthood, the assault caught the GOP like a deer in headlights.
Boehner’s office told reporters that wasn’t true, that Republicans and Democrats were stuck over how much spending to cut.
But it wasn’t enough to change the narrative, which so dominated the day’s discussion that Republicans spent the day battling in public whether their party ought to concede the point.
In the Senate, a series of pro-life Republicans took to the Senate floor to say Boehner should give in.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, told MSNBC, “It’s highly unlikely that many riders are going to get passed with a Democrat president and a Democrat Senate, so why don’t you take the spending and let’s get on to the budget.”
Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, said it was time to “move on, because there are other, bigger battles that we are fighting.”
Meanwhile, Jordan, the head of the House conservatives, was defending the provision from the attack in a conference call with reporters.
The whole debate took place while the official GOP line was that the debate wasn’t over Planned Parenthood at all.
Since the deal was struck at the 11th hour Friday night, top Democrats have provided numerous detailed accounts of the negotiations buttressing their story that the Planned Parenthood rider was the key item holding up the talks to the wire.
Bloomberg’s Lisa Lerer, for instance, reported an April 7 meeting between Obama and Boehner was the “breaking point” when Democrats decided to hold firm.
“Nope, zero. John, this is it,” Obama said, according to Lerer, who cited a senior Democratic aide.
Republicans haven’t been planting their own series of behind-the-scenes stories. So far, the only information from them has been Boehner relaying the “feigned moral outrage” of Vice President Joe Biden in one meeting.
Concern about the tight control of information by Boehner has been mitigated because most Republicans were pretty happy with the deal he got.
However, the fine print is still under negotiation, scheduled to be released Monday evening.
The key question still outstanding is: Why? Why did Republicans keep their own membership in the dark about the progress of the talks.
Congressional sources posit several reasons.
One is that Boehner, and particularly his chief of staff Barry Jackson, are notoriously guarded. “They’re control freaks,” one GOP aide said.
The second is that Boehner was worried that confirming any concessions he had made would give the right flank of his party time and space to mobilize against those concessions.
A rift between Boehner and Cantor could form a third reason.
Neither Cantor, nor his staff, were in the negotiations, though presumably, as the Majority Leader, he was privy to the details.
If there was palace drama between the two it could be a key reason the process, from the GOP point of view, was so shrouded in mystery.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, explained the lack of details as Boehner’s decision not to negotiate the spending deal “in the press.”
“We will get the largest spending cuts possible by negotiating at the negotiating table — not in the press,” Steel said in response to Jordan revealing that members were given no information about the talks of the deal at the height of the shutdown drama on Friday.