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Cantor's stunning defeat removes 'only leader' on defense in GOP's top ranks

Texan Hensarling called new frontrunner to move up

Jun. 11, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
House Lawmakers Speak To The Press After Their Par
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., right, speaks June 10 while flanked by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor’s stunning primary defeat is a huge blow to the defense sector, and could allow an up-and-coming GOP deficit hawk to replace Cantor, or even become House speaker, sources say.

Cantor announced he would resign as House majority leader July 31.

Republican sources and Washington insiders say the Virginia Republican’s lopsided loss will remove a major defense-sector ally from the ranks of the House Republican leadership team. What’s more, they agreed there are few immediate scenarios under which another friend of the military-congressional-industrial complex fills Cantor’s spot.

“From a defense perspective, this is certainly not a good thing. Cantor was really the only leader for the defense community in the House,” said one GOP source with ties to the defense sector. “He’s the only one in leadership who advocated for defense. And he’s the only one who had dedicated staff on defense issues in the leadership team.”

The pro-defense Cantor was long considered the frontrunner to take the speaker’s gavel in January. Experts expected his real challenge from the right wing of the GOP would come during his speakership campaign.

The tea party, it turns out, did not wait for that inside-the-Beltway race. Instead, a tea party-affiliated Randolph-Macon College economics professor, Dave Brat, defeated Cantor with 55.5 percent of the vote to the incumbent’s 44.5 percent in the commonwealth’s 7th Congressional District.

“Electing more people like Brat” and tea party candidate Chris McDaniel, who is in a runoff with Senate Appropriations Ranking Member Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi, “means more people in Congress who just want to cut spending, including for defense,” the GOP defense source said. “They just want to shut the government down. They don’t want to govern and they will not compromise.”

Loren Thompson, COO of the Lexington Institute and a defense-sector consultant, told CongressWatch Cantor’s “departure will be a setback for the military — continuing a long-term trend that has seen staunch supporters of the Pentagon … depart the public stage.”

Cantor’s stunning defeat has changed the calculus inside Republican circles on Capitol Hill over who should hold the speaker’s gavel when the new Congress is seated in January. It also has shaken up Washington’s political scene.

On Wednesday morning’s “Daily Rundown” on MSNBC, host Chuck Todd, a veteran political observer, called Cantor’s defeat a “history making shocker.” And on Tuesday evening, The Hill newspaper reported Cantor’s defeat already has “upended” the race to replace Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, as House speaker.

Suddenly, there is talk that Boehner might seek to remain as speaker next year.

“I really think there’s a strong chance Boehner stays on as speaker,” said Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official and longtime Washington political observer.

“Whatever Boehner was thinking before last night, I don’t think he’ll step down now,” Korb said. “I think he’s more likely to stay and see what happens in 2016. If Democrats win big [and potentially control the House, Senate and White House], I could see him retiring then.”

Texas takeover?

But the other name topping most early post-Cantor lists to take possession of the speaker’s gavel should Boehner step aside is Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, the current Financial Services Committee chairman.

Hensarling’s interest in becoming the House’s leader has been an open secret on the Hill for months. But, less than 24 hours after Cantor’s unexpected defeat, Hensarling is playing coy.

“Eric Cantor is a friend and ally on many fronts. He was, is, and will continue to be a good leader and servant for his district and our nation, and I am grateful for his service,” Hensarling said in a statement prepared for CongressWatch. “While one chapter will ultimately close for him, I know that Eric will continue to work to advance the cause of freedom.

“I am humbled by the many people who have approached me about serving our Republican Conference in a different capacity in the future,” Hensarling said. “There are many ways to advance the causes of freedom and free enterprise, and I am prayerfully considering the best way I can serve in those efforts.”

And even if Boehner again seeks the top post and wins enough votes to continue his embattled run as speaker, sources say there is a strong chance Hensarling succeeds Cantor as majority leader — putting a deficit hawk where an advocate for protecting defense spending once sat.

The GOP defense source said he believes Speaker Hensarling would be “mostly a bad thing for defense” because “he’s aligned with a wing of the party that doesn’t want to restore any of the sequestration cuts.”

Thompson said that shows how “the tea party has turned everything upside down in the House GOP.”

“Members like Jeb Hensarling, who should have a strong home-state interest in defense, seem more interested in shrinking government, while people like [Wisconsin Republican] Paul Ryan, with little home-state stake in the defense budget, favor robust military spending,” Thompson said. “This is not the way politics used to work on Capitol Hill.”

Hensarling's record

A review of Hensarling’s voting record conducted by CongressWatch suggests the Texan has some pro-defense leanings.

For instance, he has supported annual Pentagon policy and spending measures on the House floor.

And, at times, he has railed against across-the-board defense spending cuts.

In late May 2012, he called the Pentagon’s portion of sequestration “dangerous and arbitrary defense cuts.” He endorsed a Republican plan to replace them with what he dubbed “common sense spending reductions that begin the process of ensuring we live within our means.”

Of course, the GOP plan was pronounced DOA in the Democratic-controlled Senate shortly after it was unveiled.

He chaired the so-called “supercommittee” — known formally as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction — which was charged with heading off the sequestration cuts by fashioning a massive federal deficit-reduction package both parties in both chambers and the Obama White House would support.

Like the Democratic members of that House-Senate panel, Hensarling and his GOP colleagues held firm to ideology and principle.

The “supercommittee” ultimately failed to reach a deal. Sequestration kicked in several months later, sending panic across the defense sector as annual cuts of around $45 billion to non-exempt accounts were triggered.

In fact, Hensarling voted in favor of the 2011 Budget Control Act, which established that joint panel and also created the across-the-board defense and domestic sequestration cuts.

'Spending-driven debt'

While Hensarling has staked out some pro-defense stances, he has been more vehement in his rhetoric and actions on deficit-reduction. And some sources say if the GOP takes control of the Senate in January, the party is poised to again charge hard after a major debt-reduction package that would include additional — and sizeable — federal spending cuts.

To that end, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told CongressWatch on Tuesday that if Republicans control both chambers next year, it should force Democrats and President Barack Obama to adhere to more GOP demands in negotiations over such a deal.

And, if Hensarling is speaker, he would be heavily involved in those high-level talks. It would be an early test that would make him choose between agreeing to some level of defense cuts — likely smaller than sequestration’s scheduled cuts — and other debt-cutting items like higher tax rates or entitlement cuts.

Republicans like Corker believe they can get more domestic entitlement program cuts and guard against Democratic-supported tax hikes if they control both chambers. But, even with a small Senate majority, they would still need to secure 60 votes to pass a deficit-paring bill.

That’s where defense cuts could come into play, to attract the handful of Democrats to get to 60 votes. In the House, GOP leaders and the White House might want more than a party line vote, meaning defense cuts could help attract some Democrats to make the vote tally seem more bipartisan.

Sources on Wednesday said Hensarling seems more inclined to cut spending, from wherever it can be accomplished.

“As the father of a 10-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter, I am … painfully aware of the impact our nation’s growing debt will have on future generations if we don’t address it, and address it soon,” Hensarling said in December.

“There is no issue I have worked harder on than attempting to deal with our spending-driven debt. It is unsustainable, unconscionable and immoral,” Hensarling said. “As a conservative, I will never stop fighting to reform our entitlements, cut spending, balance the budget, or lower taxes for hardworking Americans.”

Hensarling late last year voted for a bipartisan budget deal that lessened the defense sequestration cuts for 2014 and 2015. But he made clear it was a reluctant “yay” vote.

“A bipartisan budget agreement is, almost by definition, both modest and disappointing, and this one is no different,” Hensarling said. “Though — after great thought and reflection, considering the merits of arguments made both for and against — I ultimately decided that this agreement was worthy of my support, but was a close call.”

Hensarling made clear then that his reluctance was due to concerns the bipartisan deal failed to trim deficits and cut spending to his liking.

In Washington, experts often measure influence in terms of campaign contributions.

This appears to be bad news for the defense sector, which, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, did not rank in the top 20 of industries that gave to Hensarling in the 2010 or 2012 election cycles.

The same is true of the 2014 cycle.

What’s more, no U.S. weapons manufacturer ranks among the top companies that donated to the would-be House speaker or majority leader in any of those years.

Boehner-McCarthy: 'Best bet'?

Another potential scenario being floated would see Boehner remain as speaker, but with current GOP Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., moving into the majority leader post.

A McCarthy spokesman had not returned a reporter’s request for comment about his boss’ plans at time of publication.

McCarthy also has railed against, as he put it in October 2012, “devastating automatic defense cuts.” But he has more often delivered rhetorical blows against Obama and congressional Democrats over what he has called their deficit-reduction shortcomings.

The GOP whip’s sharpest words, however, often have been aimed at federal spending. In December 2012, he told reporters: “That’s where the problem lies.”

Sources said McCarthy is more closely aligned with the GOP’s deficit hawks than its defense hawks.

A review of McCarthy’s campaign donors over the same span reveals a similar tale as the Hensarling data: The defense sector failed to rank in the top 20 of his donors in the 2010, 2012 and 2014 election cycles. In 2012, Boeing and Lockheed Martin did make McCarthy’s top 20 — but tied with nearly 40 other firms in that spot, according to CRP.

Still, sources say the Pentagon and defense sector should back Boehner as speaker and McCarthy as his No. 2.

“That’s the best bet for defense. All the other options would be very bad for defense,” the GOP defense source said. “Those guys don’t want to govern. They don’t want to compromise. They just want to cut spending, and they don’t seem to care if it’s from defense.”

Korb agreed, but added a twist: “Even if Boehner stays and McCarthy moves up, I don’t think Boehner has enough sway in the party to do anything on sequestration.”

So that would likely mean, Korb said, Cantor’s defeat means the defense sector “isn’t going to reverse sequestration any time soon.”

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