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Cantor Peddles an Agenda

Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, the Chief Deputy Whip for House Republicans, this week unveiled his own GOP agenda aimed at middle-class voters, a plan he hopes Republican Members and candidates will rally behind between now and Election Day.

Cantor, in an interview Wednesday with Roll Call reporters and editors, said his “Middle Class Bill of Rights” was borne out of his frustration after the 2006 elections, when independent voters overwhelmingly backed Democratic candidates and the GOP lost control of the House and Senate for the first time in a dozen years. He said he and his office have been working on the agenda for the past year.

“We were unable as a party to connect with such a large block of this country,” Cantor said. “Somehow we became that party which is identified with corruption or big business and didn’t necessarily have the interests of working families in this country” in mind.

Cantor’s roll out comes as Congress has a little more than two weeks left before Members leave town to hit the campaign trail and less than two months before voters go to the polls on Nov. 4.

The move also comes as the four-term Republican is widely viewed as positioning himself to move up the leadership ladder after the elections, though it is still unclear whether he might be gunning for the No. 1 or No. 2 House GOP slot.

While Republicans across the board are more upbeat about their November prospects — especially in light of the energy surrounding the pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) vice presidential running mate — Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) ability to hold onto his post still hinges largely on the extent of expected GOP losses this fall.

With a House playing field complicated by more than two dozen retirements, a wide cash disparity and the lingering unpopularity of President Bush, Republicans stand to lose 10 to 20 House seats, according to most estimates.

Cantor declined to address what number might precipitate a call for change in leadership but did acknowledge that there would be some level of accountability at the top when all of the votes are counted.

“I think that anybody’s going to have to look and say sure it’s going to be a referendum on the success of the leadership team,” he said.

Beyond that, Cantor shied away from any talk about what might happen within the leadership ranks after the elections, maintaining that everyone in the party is now focused solely on getting to Nov. 4.

“What will happen post-election, I believe that it really is about what narrative we tell over the next five weeks,” he said. “If we’re capable as a Conference to promote that we really are going to be the agents of change along with John McCain and Sarah Palin, they’ll win the White House big, and I think we’re going to be a lot more successful. I’m not buying into this cataclysmic result that maybe some are predicting.”

Cantor also said his agenda should be viewed as a supplement to and not a rebuke of the yearlong Republican messaging effort led by Boehner that was rolled out piecemeal earlier this year. That effort was privately panned by many Republicans, though it was eventually overshadowed when it became clear this summer that the GOP was gaining traction on the issue of rising energy costs and gasoline prices and they accordingly switched gears to focus singularly on that.

“I am not in any way saying that this is a rebuke of anything that the Conference is doing, because we are embracing that as well,” Cantor said. “This is just an addition and I think a viable tool for our Members and candidates to use in order to present conservative solutions to problems that really voters are facing. It’s not just some philosophical stab here. These are very practical issues, practical solutions to real problems facing families in this country.”

Cantor said he plans to distribute the Middle Class Bill of Rights to candidates across the country and will sell it to his fellow Members before everyone skips town later this month.

The plan has six main tenets: lowering gas prices, getting health care coverage for families; making paychecks go further, creating more jobs and safer retirements; creating a simple, honest and fair tax code; and bringing down the cost of food.

It mostly embraces top GOP priorities such as opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, reducing corporate tax rates and allowing families to choose a one-page simplified tax form.

Perhaps the most controversial plank in Cantor’s plan is the elimination of the requirement that gasoline contain 8 percent ethanol, which is made from corn and which he says has contributed to an increase in food prices as agribusiness produces more corn for energy consumption.

Both Cantor and Boehner opposed passage of the farm bill, which included subsidies for ethanol, earlier this year. Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Cantor’s mentor, and House GOP Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) strongly supported the measure.

“I’m not convinced yet that the ethanol product is one that is a net energy saver nor am I necessarily convinced of those who are maybe economists who are suggesting that point,” he said. “I think that the best way for us to bring down prices is to signal we’re serious about alternatives that make sense. I just don’t think that ethanol makes sense.”

Cantor also plugged the work of the Young Guns, a group he formed with Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in an effort to steer money toward viable Republican challengers in light of the fact that the National Republican Congressional Committee’s limited funds will be largely allocated toward saving vulnerable incumbents.

“We also need to have an offense. We need to be out there leading with ideas, leading with an agenda and work our way through some difficult times,” he said.

Fifty-eight Members are involved in the group, which meets every two weeks. So far they have raised more than $1.25 million for 21 challengers across the country.

Cantor said Republicans are well-aware of the harsh realities of the political environment and cash disparity they face.

“I can tell you it is going to take outsmarting the other side and an efficient deployment of the campaign cash that we’ve got in order for us to do better than what folks are saying,” he said. “But I’m feeling that we are.”

More broadly, Cantor said he believed the party’s lackluster 2006 results were more the result of a broken messenger than a broken message. He talked about the need for Republicans to embrace the McCain/Palin message of reform and change — even as the ticket is running against a broken Washington that GOP incumbents have been a part of.

Cantor has been among the group of House conservatives pushing an earmark moratorium as part of an effort to reform the process for requesting funds for special projects.

He predicted that the throw-the-bums-out mood of voters across the country could have more repercussions for Democrats than is currently predicted. One of the byproducts of the energy debate has been that it has increased public awareness that Republicans no longer control the legislative branch, he said.

Although approval ratings for Congress remain abysmally low, Democrats continue to hold an advantage on the generic ballot test — though that gap has begun to close with the GOP’s post-convention bounce.

And with McCain’s pick of Palin, Cantor said, there is not only renewed energy within the GOP Conference, but it is his belief that she provides an opening for the party to restart a dialogue with the middle-class voters who grew weary of the party.

“I really think the McCain/Palin effect is real, and I think it’s real because the country saw in Sarah Palin an individual that not only reflects what John McCain is about, but an individual that can actually connect and that people will listen to — and frankly that people like,” he said. “Again, it’s the likability of Republicans that has come through in Sarah Palin.”

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