Cantor's Defeat Brings An End To Prickly Relationship With Obama

As the dust settles on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's primary defeat, some have begun to reflect on his relationship with President Obama. From the very start, it was a prickly one, with divisions only deepening throughout Obama's time in office.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. There is no love lost at the White House for Eric Cantor, the number two Republican in the House, who lost his primary this week. The Virginia congressman has long been a roadblock for the president's legislative agenda. House Republicans will vote next week on who should replace Cantor as majority leader. NPR's Scott Horsley reports that while the players are changing, the partisan dynamic is likely to say the same.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama and Congressman Cantor clashed from the get-go. Obama had been in office only a few days when congressional leaders gathered at the White House to discuss the economic stimulus package. Cantor offered a one-page list of Republican ideas, and Obama acknowledged they had some merit. The president refused to yield, though, on his push to give tax breaks to low-income workers. Former White House spokesman, Bill Burton, says Obama played his trump card.

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BILL BURTON: At one point in the meeting, the president turns to Eric Cantor. And he says, elections have consequences. And Eric, I won.

HORSLEY: The stimulus bill passed with the president's tax cut, but not a single House Republican voted for it. Obama kept trying. At a White House fiscal summit the following month, he promised to keep reaching out to Republicans.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm going to keep on talking to Eric Cantor. Someday, sooner or later, he's going to say, boy, Obama had a good idea. It's going to happen.

HORSLEY: Five and a half years later, Cantor has yet to utter those words. After his shocking primary loss to a Tea Party candidate on Tuesday, Cantor was eager to mend fences - but only with his fellow Republicans.

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CONGRESSMAN ERIC CANTOR: Truly, what divides Republicans pales in comparison to what divides us, as conservatives, from the left and their Democratic Party.

HORSLEY: Throughout the Obama administration, Cantor has nursed and highlighted those partisan differences. As he did with the stimulus, Cantor made sure not a single Republican voted for the president's healthcare law. And he repeatedly halted negotiations on a grand fiscal bargain, determined that the GOP brand would not be associated with any tax increase. Democrats like Burton could only laugh ruefully when Cantor's primary opponent tried to paint him as too conciliatory with the president.

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BURTON: That's hilarious, that Eric Cantor was working too closely with President Obama when, pretty singularly, he did everything he could to derail anything from happening at all.

HORSLEY: As prickly as Cantor's personal relationship with Obama has been, though, congressional scholar Sarah Binder, of the Brookings Institution, says it's doubtful any other lawmaker would have behaved much differently in a Congress where opposition of the other party is now the norm, and compromise is increasingly rare.

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SARA BINDER: Perhaps Cantor and the Republicans perfected it, but it is certainly emblematic of a broader trend that's been going on since the parties became far more competitive in, say, 20 years ago.

HORSLEY: With control of both the House and Senate now up for grabs every two years, Binder says lawmakers have little incentive to make deals with the other party. On the ropes after the 2008 election, Cantor and his fellow Republicans saw wholesale opposition to Obama as their best ticket back to the majority. And it worked.

BINDER: Why go for half a loaf when you can hold out for the whole loaf if you gain control of government?

HORSLEY: While Republicans took control of the House in 2010, they failed to block the president's reelection. And in the end, Obama will outlast his GOP nemesis. Few people in the White House will be sorry to see Cantor go. But with the ongoing stalemate in Congress, it's hard to imagine this president getting many more chances to say, I won. Scott Horsley. NPR News, Washington.

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