02.24.10

'Dr. No' Speaks

House Republican Whip Eric Cantor talks to Lloyd Grove about the game plan for today's health-care summit, Democratic charges of stimulus hypocrisy, and the GOP’s prospects this fall.

“Doctor No” is in.

Not only that, he’s making house calls.

House Republican Whip Eric Cantor—nicknamed for a Bond villain months ago by snarky Capitol Hill Democrats—has spent this week doing everything he can to spread his grim prognosis for Thursday’s six-hour televised bipartisan health-care confab to be hosted by President Obama at Blair House.

The odds favor “a meeting with no results,” Cantor predicted Wednesday in an interview with The Daily Beast. “The Republicans are going to go tomorrow because we care about health care, we care about trying to do something for the American people. Listen, the president called a meeting. Out of respect for the office, we’re going to be there.”

“I’m supporting John Boehner for Speaker,” Cantor told me—an answer that leaves very little wiggle room should he have second thoughts.

I asked Cantor if his team has any concerns about being cast as bit players in “Midday Live! With Barack Obama”—during which key Republicans and Democrats are expected to be sitting around tables with the telegenic star.

“We don’t have any control over that,” Cantor told me. “The White House is controlling the format, the setup and the rest. That’s their game. And whether this is a dog and pony show, a news conference for six hours, or whether it’s going to be a serious meeting, we’re intending on going, presenting our indictment of the president’s health-care bill and offering our alternative.”

In a wide-ranging phone chat, the 46-year-old Cantor, who represents Richmond, Virginia, also discussed his doubts about the $15 billion jobs bill passed Wednesday by the Senate, the charges of hypocrisy leveled by the White House at House Republicans who voted against last year’s stimulus package and showed up at stimulus-funded ribbon cuttings; the prospects for the GOP taking back the House this November—and, if they succeed, whether the ambitious Cantor would consider challenging House Minority Leader John Boehner for the speakership.

His response to the last question would appear to be no.

“I’m supporting John Boehner for Speaker,” Cantor told me—an answer that leaves very little wiggle room should he have second thoughts.

Cantor—the top fundraiser in the House, who has been using money from his war chest to help Republican incumbents and challengers—says the downfall of the Dems and Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a distinct possibility, a piece of wisdom reaching conventional status inside the Beltway.

“I have said from the beginning of last year that we can take the majority back,” Cantor said. “I believe that the American people want a check and balance to the one-party rule in Washington that has taken an agenda and steered it so far to the left and outside the mainstream.”

A manic multitasker who is usually possessed by outward calm, Cantor raised his voice in irritation when I asked about the Democrats’ stimulus-bill hypocrisy charge—including that Cantor himself hosted a jobs fair in which many of the prospective employers had benefited from Obama-supported stimulus money.

“That is the most preposterous, preposterous reasoning I have ever heard in my life!” Cantor told me. “I didn’t support that stimulus bill because it is an $860 billion bill full of pork barrel, wasteful spending. If I had a jobs fair, and entities of that jobs fair may have received some stimulus monies, if that’s the case, OK. But how is that getting in the way of my doing what I need to do for my constituents—which is to do everything I can to get them back to work? That is nonsensical reasoning!”

Cantor added heatedly: “It just shows you the kind of politics this White House is engaging in. You know, they’re out there saying ‘We want bipartisanship and bipartisan solutions.’ They’re not serious.”

But what of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has stated that his fellow Republicans, who bash the recovery package while taking credit for its benefits, are being hypocritical?

“I disagree with the governor,” Cantor said.

Cantor is underwhelmed by the Senate's just-passed jobs bill, which offers tax credits to small businesses as an incentive for new hiring. But he says he needs to see the House version before deciding how he'll vote. "The method by which they're going about it is to require small businesses to hire in order to receive the benefit," he said. "It's not the most effective way to help small business, which is looking for some relief so they can keep the lights on now, with the payroll they've got now... We should stop the anti-business agenda that continues to fester here on Capitol Hill."

But Cantor's immediate focus is Thursday’s health-care showdown. According to Politico, carrying the GOP health-care brief is Boehner of Ohio, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Louisiana Rep. Charles Boustany, Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam. Boehner is seeking White House permission to bring a Republican governor as well.

Cantor, meanwhile, has been working the refs in the news media.

“The American people have spoken,” he said. “They have rejected the president’s approach to health-care reform. We Republicans continue to favor an incremental, modest approach to health-care reform that is sustainable and brings down costs. The bill the president continues to push will have government replace the system that we have now and will burden small businesses and working families at a time when they can least afford it.”

Cantor added that despite the Democrats' 79-seat majority, it will be nearly impossible for the freshly unveiled Obama plan—which lacks a public option and contains the less-strict Senate language regarding federal funding for abortions—to get through the House. Cantor released a detailed whip’s memo naming 18 mostly Democratic members who would likely vote no on the Obama plan, causing its defeat.

“The beauty of democracy is that our democracy works even though they control every level of power in this town,” Cantor told me, noting that nobody had yet argued with his vote-by-vote analysis. “The American people have spoken up: ‘Do not pass this health-care bill and do not take my health care away.’ ”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.