Although he's positioned himself as a kindred spirit of House insurgents, and has even joined the RSC, Cantor is perhaps more deeply knitted into the Republican establishment than Boehner is. It was Cantor's prodigious fundraising talents that elevated him to the fast track in 2003, when he became chief-deputy whip after just one term in Congress. Married to a former Goldman Sachs VP, he speaks the language of the investment class and is said to sell financiers on the "return on investment" of their political donations to the party. He's been a fierce defender of the hedge-fund loophole that taxes the income of top investors at less than the rate of their secretaries – once arguing that taxing "carried interest" at normal rates would hurt "the average blue-jean-wearing American." Over his career, he's raised more than $2.4 million from the investment community.
The drama in the GOP House used to center around the palace intrigue between Cantor and Boehner. The rift was real – but exacerbated by hyperloyal staffers, in particular, Boehner's former chief of staff, Barry Jackson, who has since decamped for K Street. By all accounts, the speaker and the majority leader now enjoy a smoother working relationship. "The guys agree on most policy," says the former leadership aide. "I mean, there's very little dividing line on that." The two men even share the same benefactor: The Cantor-affiliated Super PAC YG Action Fund received $5 million from casinos magnate Sheldon Adelson last cycle – the same amount that the Boehner-affiliated Congressional Leadership Fund got.
The budget fight produced a worst-case hybrid of Republican governance. The forces of DeMint succeeded in grinding the gears of Washington to a halt – provoking the first government shutdown in 17 years. But not before the forces of Rove had whittled a big, existential battle over the size of government down to a squabble over poll-tested tweaks to the president's health care law.
In the end, Republicans did not shut down the government for a full repeal of Obamacare. Rather, they furloughed nearly 1 million federal employees, shuttered national parks and brought other core functions of government to a halt, because they couldn't persuade Democrats to agree to a one-year delay in the mandate that Americans buy insurance – or face a $95 fine. Said New York Rep. Peter King, one of the few centrists left in the House GOP, "[This] whole thing has become madness."
The madness has also ratcheted up the danger of a catastrophic federal default, looming on October 17th. Left to their own devices, House radicals won't pull themselves back from this brink: "If we miss the deadline, it's no big crisis," RSC member John Fleming of Louisiana told Rolling Stone. "It can be used politically." But if Boehner sidelines the Tea Party contingent and defuses the debt-ceiling crisis with the help of Nancy Pelosi and Democratic votes, it's likely to be his last act as speaker.
Even the men who put this chaos in motion have admitted they don't have a strategy for the endgame. They just wanted to put the ball in play. Speaking on September 19th, after the House had all but guaranteed a federal shutdown, Jordan invoked the coach of the NFL's New England Patriots. "Even Belichick," he said, "doesn't script out the whole game."
This story is from the October 24th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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