Cantor sabotages conservatives in quest for speakership

Christopher Bedford Former Editor in Chief, The Daily Caller News Foundation
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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is intentionally sidelining one of his own Republican committee chairmen — and the chairman’s attempts to pass conservative reforms — in order to better secure his own path to the speakership.

Informed sources in the House, Senate and outside groups tell The Daily Caller that a shift in leadership is going to come sooner than expected, and Cantor is fighting hard for the new spot.

Speaker of the House John Boehner will likely step down if the Republicans fail to take the Senate in 2014; and even if Republicans do win, the rumor is Boehner isn’t interested in sticking around in the unpopular gig for too long anyway. This leaves his top deputy, Cantor, in a strong position to succeed Boehner at the helm in the next two years, and Cantor’s aspirations for the speakership are obvious.

Cantor’s alleged target, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling, poses a rare threat to Cantor’s rise: He has strong conservative bona fides, once heading the conservative Republican Study Committee and often fighting for conservative reforms. He has also been around long enough – including serving as chairman of the House Republican Conference – to earn the respect of more moderate, “establishment” Republicans.

It’s not certain Hensarling even wants to be speaker, with sources close to him playing coy, but it’s clear to conservatives that Cantor sees his colleague as a threat to his rise.

“Hensarling appeals to conservatives, with maybe a slight apprehension that he’s not fire breathing anymore, but still a principled, trustworthy conservative,” a leading conservative Republican, who worked closely with Hensarling, told TheDC. “He also appeals to moderates, and is reasonable in how he runs his committee — he reaches across the aisle.”

Cantor’s strategy to sideline Hensarling begins with killing his policy initiatives, and robbing him of political successes. When Hensarling suggested reforms to flood insurance, Republican leadership bypassed him. His attempts to abolish Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have also been ignored — despite overwhelming outside support from conservative juggernauts like Heritage Action and Club for Growth.

“This is all 100 percent coming from Cantor,” one ranking Senate source with ties to the situation told TheDC, “and this is all angling for Boehner’s job. The case Cantor’s going to make is ‘I’m next in line.’ Hensarling may [otherwise] say ‘You’re next in line, but who’s doing all the work? Who’s the one passing all the bills? Who do you want to lead you, a conservative doing reform or a guy with wishy-washy bills?’”

Cantor, sources say, can and is neutering his career threat – especially the “passing all the bills” bit.

“That’s how I see it, personally,” the Hill officer who previously worked with Hensarling told TheDC. “That’s how a lot of folks in the Hensarling office see it.”

Flood reform – the latest example of leadership thwarting Hensarling – is an issue dear to the chairman, but also politically volatile to Republican congressmen eager to avoid angering their constituents with flood insurance hikes. Republican leadership rejected Hensarling’s reform effort despite weeks of negotiations and four proposed solutions; despite strong support from powerful conservative groups; and despite repeated promises from Boehner that committee chairmen would lead House policy.

Instead, Cantor teamed up with Ranking House Financial Services Committee Member Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, to bypass the chairman, win over Democrats, and pass a version 86 Republicans voted against.

Conservatives were furious.

“Circumventing a full committee chairman like Jeb Hensarling indicates two things: Eric Cantor does not appear to support conservative reforms and he does not respect the position of the committee chairmen or the jurisdiction of the committees,” Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller told TheDC.

“Conservatives outside of Washington are looking for champions inside the beltway,” Heritage Action Communications Director Dan Holler told TheDC. “So when a conservative committee chairman is transparently sidelined, conservative constituents are understandably frustrated.”

So why did leadership bypass Hensarling on flood insurance?

To protect Republican members from taking a tough vote, according to one, oft-reported narrative: “Determined to protect politically vulnerable lawmakers during this election year, House GOP leaders have sidelined … Hensarling and his staunchly conservative views,” CQ Roll Call reported in February.

And people close to Cantor are also adamant that personal ambitions are not responsible, instead blaming the outcome on a disagreement in the committee among the Republican members who they say had hit a log jam. Something had to get done to pass reform quickly, some believe, or a lot of Republican members may have potentially supported a more liberal version that Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu was writing. The feeling in Republican leadership is that the kinds of compromises that achieve the most conservative outcome — even if not the preferred outcome — are the kinds of compromises a leader needs to make.

But conservatives on and off the Hill aren’t buying Cantor or the media version.

“This is more than just Cantor [forging a deal] on flood insurance,” a lead Republican staffer told TheDC. “I think most people see it as a deliberate weakening of Hensarling. Why give him any victories? If anything, let’s show that he’s an ineffective chairman to maybe take away his biggest competition.”

“If you’re Cantor, do you want Hensarling in a position of strength or weakness?” another Republican staffer who worked on flood insurance told TheDC. “If you’re a popular committee chairman who can’t get anything done, you’re in a position of weakness. He’d be best to say ‘I’m a committee chairman and I get conservative reform done.’”

“There were rumors there was a lot of tension,” a Cantor aide counters, “and nothing could be further from the truth.”

When asked, senior staffers in the Finance Committee assured TheDC that Hensarling is focused on his current job as chairman, and is looking forward to working closely with the Cantor on a number of important, upcoming issues.

“I’m fairly familiar,” a former Republican staffer who worked closely with Hensarling told TheDC, “and Jeb’s done a good job of staying out of the middle of the back and forth leadership struggle that’s the undercurrent of everything Boehner and Cantor do.”

Indeed, Hensarling has to stay under the political radar: Publicly coordinating Republican support for a leadership run would be an open declaration of war on Cantor, who Hensarling still needs to achieve any policy victories at all.

But despite protests from Cantor’s office, angry whispers persist: “A lot of folks around town — coalition meetings, conservative meetings — think this is an intentional move against Hensarling,” a ranking Republican Senate staffer told TheDC.

One conservative who recently left the Hill to work in the conservative movement laid out the suspected game plan: “Cantor is actively whipping votes for speaker; [House Majority Whip Rep.] Kevin McCarthy is actively whipping votes for leader; and [RSC Chairman Rep.] Steve Scalise is actively whipping votes for whip,” they told TheDC. “When Scalise was whipping Republican votes on [Cantor’s] flood insurance [bill], he was actively auditioning for whip.”

And if the tension is real, there could be many future legislative battles that play out the same way.

The second potential fight brewing between the chairman and the majority leader is over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – the two government-backed banks that a large number of economists blame for the housing-bubble collapse that tanked the economy.

Hensarling, Heritage Action, Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth, and pretty much every conservative activist are clear on this fight — get rid of Fannie and Freddy. But so far, House Republicans have failed to make any major moves.

Cantor has said he supports Hensarling’s efforts, but an act to phase “out the troubled government-sponsored enterprises within five years” has passed through Hensarling’s committee and has languished for nearly a year waiting for a vote on the House floor. And in “an election year” like 2014 (“election year” is D.C. code for “every other year”) staffers on the finance committee told TheDC they aren’t hopeful that they’ll get a shot in 2014.

Not bringing something to a vote is a common, passive aggressive fight-avoiding tactic in Washington, and conservatives are paying attention.

“It’s hard to see how this is a coincidence,” one ranking Republican operative told TheDC.

Next up is the move to reauthorize – or not reauthorize – the Export-Import Bank (Ex/Im). While largely unknown to the public, Ex/IM is another government-backed bank conservatives love to hate for doling out politicized corporate welfare. Among its black marks: backing failed solar-company Solyndra.

Hensarling has been very open about his opposition to the bank. And politics may be moving to his side: Recent reports show its holdings may be profiting some of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close allies.

Eliminating the bank as some conservatives want to do could be very difficult, but letting its authorization run out might be more practical. The bank’s authorization runs out in September, but it has strong allies, including several big-money companies that profit from the corporate welfare. In 2012, Cantor teamed up with the Democrat’s House Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer to reauthorize it over conservative Republican protest.

“The major fight is yet to come: The Export/Import Bank,” a ranking Senate staffer with strong bicameral ties told TheDC. “Flood insurance is important, but it isn’t a [key conservative] movement fight. Ex/Im is going to be a colossal fight. Is Cantor going to go around committee on that? If you bring any reauthorization to the floor, that’s going around Hensarling.”

“Pro-Ex/Im forces are likely going to try to spring it,” the staffer continued. “So [movement to reauthorize will begin] any time after the spring recess, but as soon as May. The real question will be: Do they bother with a standalone bill or attach it to a ‘must-pass’ bill?”

And if Cantor is moving politically against Hensarling, he will have allies: Republicans who miss earmarks.

Hensarling and Republican Sen. Jeff Flake were the leaders of the anti-earmark fight that finally, effectively banned the practice in 2010. Now, there are whispers that the pro-earmark forces are coming back.

“Transportation is going to be hot this year, too,” the Republican Senate staffer with long House ties told TheDC. That is going to be difficult with conservatives, and will give proponents cause to fondly recall a time when passing “bills used to be so much ‘easier’” – because of earmarks.

If Hensarling “gets into the speakership,” the staffer said, “they’re certainly not coming back. I think he’s a threat to folks in the establishment who want Cantor as the next speaker.”

“Cantor always seems like he’ll go to the right of Boehner, but never seems to because he’s more governed by polls,” one former Republican staffer who worked closely with Hensarling told TheDC. “He wants to be the heart of the conservative GOP but never does it; he wants to be the good moderate in public, but when he finds a conservative position he can scream [in support of], he does it.”

“Something he can actually put his foot down on is pushing hard for cracking down on the Export/Import operation,” the staffer continued. “If it makes money for the government, why do taxpayers need to be subsidizing it? And Russia is another feather in the cap. Cantor has always been a big backer of it so if they need to fight on something, it’s this.”

“If Cantor thinks he’s being threatened for his leadership by Hensarling, he’s got a choice to make,” one senior Senate “Wacko Bird” strategist told TheDC. “Do I pull his bills? The same thing as flood insurance is going to happen on housing, and probably Ex/Im.”

But some think the strategy could backfire if conservatives are sufficiently angered by the bills Cantor pushes through.

“This is a case of keep your friends close and keep your enemies closer, and Cantor is not doing a good job of keeping his enemies close,” the strategist continued. (RELATED: A House Divided: The Wacko Birds and their war on DC)

“If these bills go through and it’s successful, one could say it’s a mark on the side of Hensarling, but if they get killed by Cantor to the objection of the conservatives in the caucus, that could also play in Hensarling’s favor, so it’s kind of a win-win with him because of the nature of the bills he’s proposing,” the strategist continued. “He’s either a passer-of-legislation or a conservative leader. How can Cantor get his [alternative] bills passed but also maintain whatever relationship he has with conservatives in the House?”

Still, legislative achievements help any congressman angling for the speakership, and powerful conservatives inside and outside the Capitol are riled. They’re watching the majority leader closely to see what he chooses: Passing conservative policies or political infighting.

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