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Eric Cantor Navigates Debt Ceiling Debate, Still In Search Of A Defining Policy Achievement

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First Posted: 07/18/11 02:57 PM ET Updated: 09/17/11 06:12 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- As the debt ceiling talks have shifted from a grand bargain, to no bargain at all, to a fallback option granting the president authority to raise the ceiling without cuts, much ink has been spent on the increasingly visible fissures among House Republican leadership.

It misses the point, congressional observers stress. Yes, the power struggle between House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is compelling theater. But in the context of the debt ceiling debate, both men are playing natural roles. Boehner, for all his partisan bluster, has substantive legislative achievements on his record. Ten of the 64 bills he has sponsored have become law, including the Pension Protection Act of 2006, the Higher Education Extension Act of 2005, and, most famously, No Child Left Behind.

Cantor, while a crafty political machinist, lacks the resume.

Over the course of his career, the Virginia Republican has sponsored 40 bills; 34 of which haven't made it out of committee and only two of which were successfully enacted, according to the legislation tracker website, govtrack.us. Of those two bills, one was to designate a U.S Postal Service in Richmond the "Tom Bliley Post Office Building."

The thinness of Cantor's policy record is far from a vice. Plenty of members of Congress have risen up the ranks without a defining policy achievement. President Obama only had three bills he sponsored passed into law during his brief time in the Senate. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is a presidential frontrunner without having seen one of her bills successfully enacted.

"Everyone has gotten their rise in politics from being opportunistic," said Larry Farnsworth, one-time press secretary to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "Some people just make smart decisions and others make dumb ones. Cantor for the most part has been one of those that makes smart decisions."

In the context of the current debt ceiling debate, however, Boehner and Cantor's respective backgrounds help explain the state of negotiations. When the Speaker attempted to craft a grand bargain with the president on the debt ceiling (one that would have potentially raised tax revenues), his consideration was as much about legacy as politics. He had shepherded big legislative items before, with credit going to leadership and the president. He hadn't become speaker to do small things, he reportedly told his caucus.

When Cantor helped put an end to those talks, his consideration was as much about protecting the party's hold on the House as about legacy. Few candidates could go back to voters having voted to raise taxes, the rationale went.

These are not, always, conflicting interests. But in the course of the debt ceiling talks, they were.

"I would say that they do play different messaging roles for the Republican Party," said Brian Darling, senior fellow in government studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Boehner has been in Congress for a long time, he does know how to pass legislation. Cantor is much newer to the game … so there is a difference in the level of experience of the two … Both of them are taking a look at their caucus and trying to find where they are doing to end up. But you can't predict that."

The irony, in the end, is that when the process began, it was Cantor who was operating in the Boehner-like role. The Virginia Republican, according to multiple Democratic sources, was a productive force in the earlier debt ceiling talks spearheaded by Vice President Joseph Biden. He played a collaborative role in pinpointing the areas in which both parties had agreements over spending cuts. And while he insisted that revenue would be off the table, he "showed a real willingness to keep the conversations going," one Democratic official said.

Until he didn't. Cantor dramatically pulled out of those talks once it became clear that tax revenues were likely to be included. In doing so, he punted the negotiations to Boehner. The move was seen as a crass bit of political backstabbing, though both offices stressed it was nothing more than an agreed-to legislative strategy. But as those talks have stalled, it has only heightened the perception of infighting within the GOP ranks and of Cantor as a political being, disinterested in policy.

"Eric Cantor this past week had an opportunity to define himself for an audience beyond the Beltway as more than a rigid conservative with one word in his vocabulary: no," wrote the Times Dispatch. "Instead, the U.S. House majority leader, seen as a deal breaker rather than a deal maker, may have only trivialized himself."

Cantor's office dismissed questions on his policy resume as partisan fodder. It did not respond to a question about his participation in the Biden talks.

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