How Eric Cantor wants to change the House – and the Republican Party

As the No. 2 Republican in the House, majority leader Eric Cantor will have his hands full navigating fired-up freshmen members through a series of controversial votes.

Keith Lane/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Six-term Republican Eric Cantor stands in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building in Washington. Mr. Cantor has risen quickly through his party’s leadership ranks.

From his first term in the House, Rep. Eric Cantor conveyed a sense that his rise through Republican ranks was inevitable.

After securing an A-list assignment to the Ways and Means Committee, he was appointed to a seat at the leadership table as chief deputy whip.

Now, he is House majority leader, second only to Speaker John Boehner. It is his job to navigate a fired-up majority caucus through tough votes on spending, cuts to popular entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, and an increase in the national debt limit – a move that many GOP newcomers oppose. A misstep risks a government shutdown.

IN PICTURES: Will these Republicans run in 2012?

"The wave election that occurred in November was the result of the public repudiating an agenda that seemed out of touch to a majority of Americans," Mr. Cantor says in an interview with the Monitor. "Now we need to translate that experience into governing as a majority."

This week could be a key test for Cantor. The diverse Republican caucus is becoming restive over the prospect that the House will vote on yet another stop-gap spending measure to keep the government running, rather than on a final budget for the last six months of this fiscal year – and it is Cantor's job to lead the majority to hold ranks for the vote this week.

“We've made some solid first downs on spending. Now it's time to look to the end zone,” complained Rep. Jim Jordan (R) of Ohio, who chairs the 176-member Republican Study Committee, in a statement Monday announcing his opposition to the latest House measure.

Without another such continuing resolution, funding for government runs out Friday. Cantor said in a press briefing Monday that GOP leaders expect that this three-week extension will be the last before a budget deal is struck with Democrats and the White House. "We hope and intend this to be the last one,” he said.

The lawmaker for Virginia's Seventh District is smart, tireless, and conspicuously polite. He's a prodigious fundraiser – giving more of his own campaign funds to other candidates than any other national politician for two of the past three election cycles. He also is the only Jewish Republican in the House or Senate.

After serving as chief deputy whip for Republicans for three terms, he became House minority whip in 2008. In a controversial move, he rallied House Republicans to vote unanimously against President Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill and signature health-care reform.

Although Cantor has excelled at challenging Democrats, he's also taken a critical line on his own party's history. "[W]e must govern differently. Not just differently than the Democrats, but differently from our previous majority," he wrote in a letter to GOP colleagues after the midterm elections.

The education of a majority leader

Cantor grew up in an upscale neighborhood at the edge of Richmond, where established families date back to the nation's founding or its near-breakup during the Civil War. By contrast, his own family is two generations away from anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia.

"I went to school and met people with a lot of history in Virginia ... and understood at some point that this was America, a merit-based society, and that if you worked hard, you could achieve whatever you wanted to achieve," Cantor says.

As a student at George Washington University, he interned for then-US Rep. Thomas Bliley (R) of Virginia. "He just had a natural talent, and that was recognized when he came [to the House] as a freshman," Mr. Bliley recalls.

A Roman Catholic, Bliley says he was drawn to Cantor's ability to make connections outside his own Jewish community. In big-city politics, a Catholic or Jewish politician can afford to stay within his or her own neighborhood, says Bliley, "but when you're in a neighborhood with a majority of people who are neither Catholic nor Jewish, you have to move to the larger community in order to succeed."

After gaining a law degree at the College of William & Mary, Cantor moved to New York, where he earned a master's in real estate management from Columbia University and met his wife, Diana. By 1991, he had won election to the Virginia House of Delegates.

"He quickly became the go-to guy for many delegates who didn't understand the complex business issues that were being considered or debated. He could explain it," says Richard Cullen, a former Virginia attorney general, now chairman of the corporate law firm McGuireWoods in Richmond.

When Bliley announced his retirement from Congress, he backed Cantor to replace him. In the end, it was a tough GOP primary, including 11th-hour campaign ads targeting Cantor's Jewish background. Cantor won the primary by 263 votes – and then the general election by 67 percent of the vote. He has sailed through reelections ever since.

At the time, Republicans were in their seventh year of controlling the House. Speaker Newt Gingrich had lost a high-profile standoff with President Clinton over spending. Majority whip Tom DeLay's K Street Project – a bid to pressure Washington's corporate-lobby firms to hire more Republicans and contribute to GOP campaigns – fueled charges that GOP leaders were selling access.

As he had in Richmond, Cantor became a strong advocate of expanding opportunities for business, but without the scandal associated with Mr. DeLay. "He's clean as a hound's tooth," says Mr. Cullen.

What appealed to GOP leaders was Cantor's ability to reach out to both business groups and Jewish voters and give a fresh face to Republican leadership. His main district office is in an industrial park in Glen Allen, flanked by headquarters of banks, health-care associations, and insurance companies.

The 'young guns' strategy

In 2007, Cantor cofounded the "young guns" program to recruit and fund "a new generation of conservative leaders." Of the 92 young guns in the 2010 campaign, 62 are now serving in the House. They are driving a new majority that says it aims to shift Congress from a culture of overspending to a focus on over­sight and budget cutting.

Since the new Congress convened, Cantor has been quietly meeting with freshmen for small, social dinners twice a week. To date, he's met with more than 90 percent of the GOP freshman class.

Like Speaker Boeh­ner, Cantor dis­misses calls to "con­trol" the new law­makers. But with the Senate opposed to anything like the $61 billion in cuts passed by the House, and with House freshmen committed to maintaining those cuts, GOP leaders have a big struggle on their hands.

Cantor boils his leadership approach down to a single rule, posted on cards in his office: "Are my efforts addressing job creation and the economy; are they reducing spending; and are they shrinking the size of the Federal Government while increasing and protecting liberty? If not, why am I doing it? Why are WE doing it?"

A fan of social networking, Cantor launched a plan last May to encourage voters to make recommendations for wasteful or ineffective programs to cut, which he dubbed YouCut. The plan in the new Congress has been to offer a YouCut item for an up-or-down vote each week the House is in session.

Democrats dub these cuts "website gimmicks" and "popularity contests," but the first proposal, to end duplicative government printing, passed unanimously. A subsequent vote to abolish presidential-election campaign funds picked up 10 Democratic votes, although other proposed cuts have not fared as well.

It is not inevitable, Cantor says, that Republicans will wind up shutting down the government. He says in the Monitor interview: "Where we will coalesce will be around ... job creation and growing the economy."

IN PICTURES: Will these Republicans run in 2012?

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