House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has had about enough of Minority Whip Eric Cantor.
The country is fighting two wars, an environmental disaster in the Gulf and a massive deficit, and every week the Maryland Democrat has to listen to the Virginia Republican go on for half an hour about the need to “stop the spending.”
The Members’ rhetorical duels on the floor are ostensibly to discuss the schedule, but they have lately sounded more like the United States’ version of question time for the British prime minister, with Cantor using his platform to needle Hoyer incessantly in hopes of creating a YouTube moment.
The exchanges are a far cry from the weekly chats Hoyer used to enjoy with his longtime friend, former Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), which featured good-natured jousting but also made it at least appear as if they really meant it when they called each other “gentleman.”
Not so much with Hoyer and Cantor.
The weekly colloquy always begins the same way: Cantor rises on one side of the chamber and requests to be recognized “to address the House for one minute for the purpose of inquiring about next week’s schedule.”
Hoyer then gives a quick rundown of the schedule and then offers the Virginia Republican the floor for any additional questions.
Then things turn ugly.
A few weeks back, Cantor had just launched his YouCut website that urges people to vote on their favorite Republican ideas for cutting spending, and he implored Hoyer again and again to allow the GOP proposals to come to the floor.
After listening to Cantor outline such narrow proposals as eliminating a $290 million line item for presidential election campaigns while simultaneously blasting Democrats for big deficits, Hoyer pounced.
“I don’t want to get too personal on this, but what do you think about cutting the spending for the high-speed rail between Richmond and Washington?” Hoyer asked.
The zinger was aimed at what Democrats consider to be Cantor’s hypocrisy as he opposes earmarks and the 2009 stimulus package while seeking infrastructure spending for a high-speed rail line to his district.
Cantor appeared to be momentarily thrown off his stride and started to defend federal spending on the rail line as a job creator.
Hoyer quipped, “Is that a no’?”
“That has always been my position,” Cantor replied.
A senior Democratic aide said Cantor, who is nearly 24 years Hoyer’s junior, has been playing up the back-and-forth for the cameras.
“Cantor is so enthralled with the 30-second commercial he thinks he is creating on the floor that he doesn’t notice when we’re about to whack him on the head with a two-by-four,” the aide said.
Such hits aren’t really Hoyer’s style — he would prefer the more collegial conversations that he once had with Blunt, “but that’s not what Cantor’s interested in,” the aide said. Instead, Cantor has been using the weekly duel to try to create a splash. “It’s typical Cantor style, with an attempt at flash and no substance.”
But Cantor’s team said any complaints from Democrats — and Hoyer’s attacks — show the Minority Whip is winning the day.
Cantor aides huddle every week to plot his floor strategy, a practice that started more than a year ago when Cantor and his staff saw the colloquy as a strategic messaging opportunity.
“Eric began to use the colloquy as an opportunity to not only wedge vulnerable Democrats against the Speaker’s agenda, but to contrast the differences between the two parties,” Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring said.
“Hoyer seems to use the colloquy to boldly declare that the Clinton administration was good and the Bush administration was bad,” Dayspring said. “Eric believes it’s more effective to focus on tomorrow rather than last decade.”
But Democrats think Cantor has been abusing the privilege.
“There comes a point where enough is enough,” another senior Democratic aide said. “Colloquies are granted by the majority party to the minority party to discuss scheduling. It’s not for grandstanding.”
The aide dismissed YouCut and other Cantor initiatives as “all grandstanding.”
“They don’t have anything substantive to offer,” the aide said.
Hoyer himself bristled last month when Cantor took after Democrats for failing to do a budget resolution and other substantive bills, and instead spending their days naming post offices.
Hoyer asked Cantor whether he were requesting that the 40 percent of post office bills that come from Republicans not come to the floor. “Because if you are, I will not schedule them,” Hoyer said.
Cantor ignored the question, instead urging Hoyer to bring up YouCut items and other spending reductions to the floor.
So Hoyer made another offer — he said he would bring Budget ranking member Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) Roadmap for America’s Future bill to the floor, which would dramatically remake Social Security and Medicare to balance the budget.
Hoyer said Ryan was offering a serious proposal, not something “that sounds good in sound bites but is not going to get us to where we need to be,” in an apparent ding to Cantor’s initiative.
Cantor demurred, calling Ryan’s bill “a 75-year document” and questioned how the Majority Leader was being serious when Democrats haven’t even produced a one-year budget.
The pair also sparred over a $2.5 billion line item that Hoyer said would produce 185,000 jobs but Cantor blasted as wasteful spending.
When Hoyer said Democrats would bring the measure to the floor to “spend it,” Cantor responded with a news release trumpeting the exchange.
One Republican strategist said the caustic colloquies come down in part to a personality conflict. “Cantor and Hoyer really don’t like each other,” the strategist said.
The strategist said Blunt would get his points in and, at times, hold Hoyer’s feet to the fire, but he always did so in a “respectful” way because of their good relationship off the House floor. Hoyer and Blunt’s close friendship was well-established; the two men would meet or get together for breakfast regularly.
But Cantor’s aggressiveness is also a sign of the stakes for the GOP as they eye a possible takeover in November. Cantor is wildly ambitious, and if Republicans were to win back control of the chamber, he would likely take Hoyer’s place as Majority Leader.
“The dynamic is a little bit different than it was” when Blunt was Whip, the strategist said. “No one thought in the ’08 cycle that we were going to pick up seats.”
Cantor and Hoyer have worked together in at least one area: Israel. The pair co-authored a pro-Israel letter last year, as each Member is among the strongest defenders of the Jewish state in their parties.
“Mr. Hoyer enjoys setting the record straight each week, if that’s what Mr. Cantor prefers over discussing the schedule,” Hoyer spokeswoman Katie Grant said. “On issues like Israel, Mr. Hoyer and Mr. Cantor have worked to bring the two sides together, and we would hope there are more issues where Republicans are interested in having serious discussions about working together.”
That doesn’t appear likely.