Eric Cantor has spent the last four years carefully cultivating his image as a foil to President Barack Obama and the conservative conscience of House Speaker John Boehner.
The man who once threatened to block emergency aid for tornado victims unless Congress found an "offset" is now pitching himself as a man just looking to get important issues like job training and education reform through a partisan Congress.
So far this year, Cantor has maneuvered behind the scenes to push the Violence Against Women Act through the House -- scheduling a vote on the floor before an angry Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy had a chance to gauge its support.
He kept lawmakers in town during a storm chiefly to mark up job education legislation.
He made a high-profile visit to Selma, Ala., with Democratic Rep. and civil rights icon John Lewis.
And he spoke on education at a school in New Orleans and - wait for it - Harvard.
In case anyone misses the message, it's tough to find a Cantor press release these days without some mention of "moms,""dads" and "families."
Cantor's move to the middle comes as many national Republicans are looking to broaden the party's appeal after a disastrous election in which they failed to win the White House or the Senate and lost seats in the House. A message beyond balancing budgets and fiscal brinksmanship could help on that front.
"Our party needs to do a better job at getting to know different constituencies," Cantor said Monday at Harvard, the AP reported. "I am much about trying to force that to happen."
Cantor later added, "One of my priorities this Congress will be to move heaven and earth to fix our education system for the most vulnerable."
Of course, he has personal motivations. Boehner won't be in that job forever, and Cantor would be a natural candidate for the job should it become available. A few legislative achievements on the national level could bolster his resume in what could be a crowded race for speaker.
Cantor isn't the only one trying to figure things out for the GOP. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus visited Brooklyn, N.Y., on Monday as part of his effort to figure out just why minorities are driven away from the party.
But much of the direction of the House Republicans came from Cantor. He famously burnished his anti-Obama credentials in 2009, when he held all Republicans together against voting for the stimulus. Cantor also became the anchor to the right of Boehner, pulling him away from a large-scale deficit compromise with Obama in 2011. Cantor even demanded that Congress should offset federal money meant to aid victims of a Missouri tornado -- a position he's now completely abandoned.
A post-election poll in 2009 -- it cost Cantor around $35,000 -- helped him craft his anti-spending message. Obama was seen as popular, the poll showed, but his policies were not.
Four years later, Cantor paid $66,500 to a polling firm ahead of his policy tour. His office declined to say what that expenditure was for, but in an email said, "Like every elected leader and political and policy organization in Washington, we examined public opinion after the election in order to learn lessons."
The behind-the-scenes machinations are rich with Capitol Hill intrigue.
Last week, so eager was Cantor to pass VAWA -- originally penned by then-Sen. Joe Biden -- he scheduled a vote on the GOP alternative on the House floor before McCarthy could gauge whether it would pass , according to more than a half-dozen aides and lawmakers.
When McCarthy had whipped the bill, it was clear that it would fall way short. But Cantor pressed ahead, telling colleagues he wanted a vote on the GOP plan even if only 100 Republicans were on board, knowing that would lead to the House passing the bipartisan Senate measure with Democrats on board. Boehner caught flak for violating the so-called Hastert Rule -- passing legislation a majority of Republicans opposed.
McCarthy didn't want to get blamed for the speed with which Cantor was moving, those present said.
"We're not scheduling bills for a vote before I whip them," McCarthy later said at a closed party meeting last week, according to several sources, which was a clear swipe at Cantor, who is the person who schedules floor votes.
Cantor was equally eager to get moving on his Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills Act, which would reinstate and streamline federal job training programs, which was originally enacted in the late 1990s under former President Bill Clinton. As meteorologists predicted a storm would wallop Washington, leadership kept the House in session primarily so the Education and the Workforce Committee could mark up the bill.
Rory Cooper, Cantor's spokesman, said the House needed to stay in session to pass the continuing resolution that would keep the federal government open past March 27. But he didn't deny there are other priorities, noting that Boehner and McCarthy "are fully involved in all major decisions."
"This is what leadership does," Cooper said. "We create a floor schedule based on the priorities of our fellow leaders, our committees and our members. We are pursuing a pro-growth fiscal agenda, as evidenced from our balanced budget proposed this week, and we are pursuing non-budgetary policy goals also aimed at helping working families, many of which leader Cantor touched on in his recent speech at [the American Enterprise Institute]."
That AEI speech in February was the rollout for Cantor's Making Life Work plan, and he's been on the march ever since. He visited a private school in New Orleans to push education reform. He walked in Alabama, posting photos on his website of himself with civil rights leaders. That came after a visit to a school in the Petworth section of Washington -- a neighborhood northwest of Capitol Hill that's undergoing gentrification.
Cantor's first test will be the Skills Act, which Republican insiders say faces some resistance but will pass. The main complaint, which is not expected to derail the bill, is that it relies on government programs to train workers. Leadership will likely accommodate some amendments from Republicans to ease the bill's passage.
His workplace flexibility bill is another test. That legislation would give flexibility to employers between giving an employee overtime pay or comp time. But moderate Republicans have complained about the bill.
The change in Cantor's orbit is not only cosmetic, it's substantive. In the past 16 months, his staff has seen significant turnover -- he has lost more than a dozen aides, many of them senior hands.
Four former deputy chiefs of staff will be gone by the end of the month: longtime well-respected hand Kyle Nevins, John Murray, Brad Dayspring and Bill Dolbow. Shimmy Stein, a top policy hand for Cantor, is now downtown. Mike Ference, who was a liaison with outside groups, is now a partner at Shockey Scofield Solutions. Laena Fallon, Cantor's former communications director, is gone, as is deputy press secretary Jessica Straus and rapid-response aide Brian Patrick. Sergio Rodriguez and David Silverman -- who are both speechwriters -- have left. Matt Lira and Steve Johnson, who are both digital gurus for the majority leader, have departed. Matt Bravo, who worked on the floor for Cantor, is now at the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Top D.C. aides who are still on board are Steve Stombres, who has been with Cantor for more than a decade, and policy director Neil Bradley.
"The Majority Leader's chief of staff for his leadership office and his personal office have been with him since he was first elected and remain on the staff," Cooper said in an emailed statement. "We've had an incredibly stable and loyal team for nearly a decade, and one long-serving deputy recently decided to pursue new challenges and we're excited for him."
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