G.O.P.’s Cantor, Looking Past Politics of Debt

John Boehner

The federal debt was climbing quickly. The Treasury Department was using “extraordinary measures” to keep paying the nation’s debts, even if, technically, the government had blown past its borrowing limit. President Obama, he said, would set the day the government would go into default, and Republicans balking at raising the debt limit had no real idea when that day would be. The Republican Party was not in control of the situation.

For Mr. Cantor, the majority leader, the goals during the ensuing week — from Williamsburg to the House vote last Wednesday to suspend the debt limit until May — were to make sure the government did not default on its debt in the coming weeks and to get House Republicans beyond an endless, and politically fruitless, discussion about debt, deficits and green-eyeshaded austerity.

“We are in a town run by Democrats, and we cannot win the hearts and minds of Americans if we are just talking about numbers, day in and day out,” said a Cantor aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss his boss’s plans. “There are a lot of things Republicans care about.”

After lying low for several months, Mr. Cantor is reasserting his presence in the Capitol, even as Speaker John A. Boehner continues his struggles to maintain Republican unity. In the coming weeks, the majority leader plans to lay out a second, softer track for his party beyond the constant cycle of budget showdowns and deficit talks.

Notably, that track will include a new push for private-school vouchers for underprivileged children, health care options beyond the old fight over the president’s health care law, new work force training initiatives and a renewed push for science, technology and engineering visas for would-be immigrants.

After successfully engineering the latest debt ceiling vote last week, Mr. Cantor flew to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he road-tested those themes as the lone House Republican leader rubbing elbows with the international elite.

Citing a struggling single mother with a gifted child in a poor city neighborhood, he told Davos attendees, “We need to create some type of competitive mechanisms” to help her escape the bad schools she is stuck with. Between meetings with King Abdullah II of Jordan; President Shimon Peres of Israel; the International Monetary Fund director, Christine Lagarde; and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations, he spoke of “sane immigration policies,” unemployed youths and a German model for economic output.

Mr. Cantor is expected to lay out his domestic vision on Feb. 5 at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right research group.

His latest moves follow two episodes this month that attracted wide notice and new questions about Republican unity. He publicly broke with the speaker early this month over the deal to avert the so-called fiscal cliff, voting against the agreement even as Mr. Boehner voted for it. He then deftly maneuvered to secure passage of a Hurricane Sandy disaster relief package that Mr. Boehner had initially been cool to, bowing to pressure from financial donors in New York and engineering a complex process that satisfied both Northeastern Republicans and fiscal conservatives.

On the train ride to the House Republican retreat in Williamsburg, Mr. Cantor, who represents a district in Virginia, walked the aisles and worked the back bench, asking members about their legislative interests and promising attention.

Mr. Cantor’s actions lack what many saw in 2011, the first year of Republican House control, as overt disloyalty to Mr. Boehner. Instead, lawmakers and aides say, his eye may be on an emerging potential rival for the speakership, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the party’s 2012 vice-presidential nominee.

Mr. Ryan has given no sign that he wants the job, but House Republicans say that if anyone can challenge Mr. Cantor for the job, it is Mr. Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman. Mr. Cantor appears to be shoring up his power before Mr. Boehner’s retirement, which many believe will come in four years, if not two.

“I have never felt that there was any real reason to believe Eric is plotting and scheming against the speaker,” said Vin Weber, a former Republican House member who remains close to the leadership. “But when you’re in the leadership, you’re always looking over your shoulder, using your peripheral vision to see who might be coming up on you. That’s the nature of leadership.”

Mr. Cantor’s supporters say his moves have nothing to do with leadership intrigue and everything to do with leadership — and with shaping the direction of the party after last year’s electoral defeats.

After more than two years of budget fights, the majority leader, more than anyone else in the leadership, is said to want to broaden the discussion. His mantra behind closed doors is “How do we make life work better?” aides say, and he would like the next two years to be at least as much about job creation and economic opportunity as about spending cuts and changes to entitlement programs.

Mr. Cantor’s votes — against the fiscal cliff deal but for $60 billion in disaster aid — may have lacked ideological consistency, but they do contain a common thread. All have been good for Mr. Cantor.

The work he did for the aid package put him in a small minority of his party. The bill passed 241 to 180, but only 49 Republicans voted yes; 179, including Mr. Ryan, voted no. But its passage pleased rich New York donors like the venture capitalist Kenneth G. Langone and the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd C. Blankfein, who pushed him hard for a vote after the speaker backed off the bill on the last day of the 112th Congress.

Those donors, in turn, help keep Mr. Cantor’s two political action committees, the YG Action Fund and the Every Republican Is Crucial PAC, flush so he can spread largess to the young House Republicans who make up the core of his support. Goldman Sachs was the second-largest donor to ERIC PAC in the 2012 political cycle.

“I certainly asked a good number of people in New York who he has relationships with to call him and ask for his support,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.

Alison Smale contributed reporting from Davos, Switzerland.

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