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Boehner Unfazed by Cantor’s Rise

Despite the rising political profile of House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) appears unaffected, showing no signs of worry that his standing in the Republican Party will be eclipsed by the young gun.

The jury is still out on whether the Boehner-Cantor leadership team will continue to function in relative harmony, but so far, the two have avoided the political pitfalls that have torn apart predecessors such as Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), whose relationship slowly eroded as Armey’s profile grew.

Observers have different takes on why Boehner has such a laissez-faire attitude toward Cantor’s new public role. Some suggested it is simply Boehner’s laid-back personality, others say he is comfortable delegating to his lieutenants and still others say the Ohio Republican is allowing his ultimate successor to build a name for himself as he trains to take the Conference reigns.

“Cantor’s a marathon runner, not a sprinter,— one GOP aide said. “It’s fairly clear to most that Cantor will be in the prime position to step into the leader role when Boehner decides to step down.—

Boehner has given no indication that he plans on ending his tenure in the House anytime soon, and despite Cantor’s designs on continuing his ascent up the GOP ladder, sources close to both lawmakers said they respect each other and, for now, are focused on party-building and getting GOP ideas heard, rather than fighting with one another.

“Boehner doesn’t, and the rest of us don’t, mind that Eric is shining out there because we understand that if your friend does well, it helps all of us be better,— GOP Policy Chairman Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.) said.

In fact, for years Boehner has publicly described Cantor as the future of the party and tried to help elevate the junior Virginian through the ranks.

“Boehner believes that encouraging emerging stars in our Conference is part of the leader’s job, and Eric Cantor is definitely a prime example,— Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “Rep. Cantor is a master of the entrepreneurial insurgency style Boehner has worked to instill in our entire Conference, and he has taken the lead in developing the Republican better solutions the American people deserve.—

After his election in 2007 as Minority Leader, Boehner added Cantor to the permanent roster of the three elected GOP leaders who met daily to plan strategy.

Sources close to Cantor and Boehner describe their relationship as a cordial one, and while not close on a personal level, they have developed a productive working relationship. However, at least one run-in earlier this year revealed that the rapport is a fragile one.

In January, a misunderstanding erupted over comments by Boehner and Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) in which they characterized the whip operation as inactive during the vote on the economic stimulus package. The remarks prompted a “heated— confrontation between Cantor and Boehner at the House Republican retreat. Boehner and Pence later apologized to Cantor and to the entire Conference for the misstatements.

But Boehner’s attitude toward Cantor should not be mistaken for complacency, sources stressed, adding that the Minority Leader is hardly naive to the depths of Cantor’s ambition. After all, the Virginia Republican is positioned as Boehner’s heir-apparent, and few doubt that he will not try to replace him should the party sustain more losses in 2010.

“On some level, Boehner is constantly looking over his shoulder to make sure any potential knifing isn’t going on,— said one source with knowledge of their relationship.

Boehner twice watched as Cantor mounted campaigns to become the Minority Whip. The first came in 2006 when Cantor mounted a bid to replace his longtime mentor Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who unsuccessfully challenged Boehner for the top leader slot after the departure of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

But after Blunt decided to resume the whip post following his defeat, Cantor stepped back into his role as his deputy, with the understanding that he would assume the job if Republicans failed to win back the majority in 2008.

After the November losses, when Republicans sustained even more electoral casualties, Cantor chose not to challenge Boehner, despite whispers inside and outside the Capitol that he might.

A source close to both Boehner and Cantor said Cantor knew he didn’t have to challenge Boehner in order to raise his profile within the party and decided the race wasn’t worth the political risk of mounting an insurgency inside the Conference.

Instead, according to several sources, Cantor began lining up support for the Whip job after private assurances from Blunt that he would not run to retain the job.

Cantor was not the only one working the phones.

No stranger to the internal politics after an election, Boehner also moved to protect his position. He asked Pence to run for Conference chairman in order to stay in good standing with the party’s right flank and supported Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas) in his bid to head the National Republican Congressional Committee over Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), a Boehner adversary.

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