Lesley Stahl profiles House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. In this wide-ranging interview, Cantor describes his childhood in Virginia, his identity as a Jewish Republican, and his current reputation as a legislative "Dr. No." Despite mounting public frustration with partisan bickering in Congress, Cantor says he is willing to "cooperate" with Democrats, but not "compromise" his principles.
The following script is from "The Majority Leader" which aired on Jan. 1, 2012. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent. Karen Sughrue, producer.
2011 will be remembered as a year of perpetual gridlock in Washington and open combat between the president and the Republicans in Congress. There was a litany of standoffs: from three near government shutdowns, to a stalemate over raising the debt ceiling, to the latest skirmish over extending the payroll tax cut. There seems to be more finger-pointing than governing and the public is fed up.
President Obama's nemesis throughout the year was 48-year-old Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader of the House, who played a major role in the Republican strategy.
The White House blames Eric Cantor, more than anyone else, for disrupting the president's first term. Especially for scuttling one set of deficit reduction talks after another.
We spoke to the majority leader recently and asked him why everything in Washington turns into a fight.
Rep. Eric Cantor: I understand people's frustration, I really do. I mean, there's a lot of people unemployed. A lot of people who've lost hope right now.
Lesley Stahl: But they're frustrated with the Congress. That you're playing games, it feels like.
Cantor: There's not.. there's no games. What we're trying to do is trying to do what's good for this country.
Stahl: Why go through this brinksmanship, gamesmanship, one-upsmanship? Explain it. Maybe there's a real good answer.
Cantor: But ultimately this is part of the legislative process that I know it's frustrating. I live it.
Stahl: Well, what do you say to the Democrats who charge that all you're really trying to do is deprive the president of a win?
Cantor: That to me is, that's just political rhetoric and I dismiss that. Because I really do believe that most if not all people who are elected to Congress really want to do what's right with this country.
Stahl: You've got a nine percent, Congress has a nine percent approval rating. What do you think this conveys about confidence in our government? Don't you think this is shredding that?
Cantor: Well, I think that ultimately the confidence comes from good results. And, you know, somehow that saying goes, "The harder you work, the sweeter the reward." And we're certainly being put to that test right now.
[President Obama: I'm going to keep on talking to Eric Cantor. Some day sooner or later he's going to say, 'Boy, Obama had a good idea.']
President Obama has made Eric Cantor the face of what he sees as Republican inflexibility. Cantor has fought the president's policies at every turn, including using his authority as majority leader to prevent a vote on the president's jobs bill.
[Obama: I'd like Mr Cantor to come down here to Dallas and explain what exactly in this jobs bill does he not believe in?]
Cantor would say what he doesn't believe in is spending government money to create jobs, but the president's keying on him has taken its toll. He's been picketed and heckled.
He has fallen in the polls and so has his party as, according to a CBS News poll, the public blames them more for the gridlock in Washington.
[Adams: Hi everybody.]
Driving much of the gridlock is the large Republican freshmen class in the House.
[Adams: A two-month extension for the payroll tax bill and to unemployment is a non-starter.]
Eric Cantor was the one who went out in 2010 and recruited most of the freshmen who are conservative and backed by the Tea Party.
[Cantor: Continue to stay focused on economic growth and job creation...]
He meets with them regularly, and several of them told us Cantor is their inspirational leader and father figure. But Eric Cantor does not want to be seen as unreasonable. To prove that he has been accommodating, Cantor told us that during his budget talks last spring with Vice President Biden, he endorsed over $200 billion in revenue increases.
Stahl: So you were in favor of reducing some of the loopholes?
Cantor: Absolutely, I said that in the very beginning.
Stahl: Like what?
He says he was willing to get rid of tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, corporate jets and increase the special 15 percent tax rate on partners in private equity firms and some hedge funds.
Cantor: We have a tax code that is littered with preferences. Because people who figure it out come to Washington with their influence and go and get provisions in the tax code that favor their industries.
But then he imposed a condition the Democrats would not accept. He wanted every dollar of new revenue offset by equal cuts in tax rates. That is the crux of the stalemate hovering over Congress on almost every single fiscal issue.
Cantor: Let's just make sure we're revenue neutral at the end, okay?
Stahl: So there'd be no benefit from revenues toward the deficit?
Cantor: Well if you want to raise taxes somewhere we want a corresponding offset for the broader goal of lowering rates for everyone.
With both sides dug in, five attempts to get a deficit reduction deal failed. Cantor then proposed that the two sides put off their major disagreements and just vote on what had been agreed to in previous negotiations which was roughly $10 in spending cuts for every one dollar raised thru revenues. That set off a testy exchange between Cantor and the president at a White House meeting.
Stahl: Didn't the president say repeatedly in the meeting that he wasn't going to agree to it without more revenues?
Cantor: Who's not compromising there? Who's not compromising there?
Stahl: Well, they would say you because you just wanted spending cuts. And I'm just trying to figure out where's the compromise coming from? Where's the compromise?
Cantor: There's plenty of compromise. We all know that there are ways to reduce spending in Washington, okay. Everybody--
Stahl: Okay, but what about revenues? A compromise. You wanted the spending cuts, they wanted revenues.
Cantor: But my assertion at the White House meeting was, "Look, take the progress now because look where we are now. We didn't take any of that progress, and we are worse off now than we would've been if we had just said incremental progress is a good thing. So let's go ahead and do that."
But the president said 10 to one was unfair and too imbalanced. We wondered if Cantor would apply his idea of "making incremental progress" - based on what the two sides could agree to - to the Bush tax cuts that expire end of this year.
Stahl: Everybody says they want to preserve the tax cuts for the middle class. The disagreement is over the millionaires. So, why not keep the rates down for the middle class and worry about the millionaires later? You keep saying, 'Let's pocket what we got.' Pocket what you got.
Cantor: If you're operating in an environment, a context of too much spending, everybody knows pocket those wins because the goal-
Stahl: But not pocket the wins on taxes, what?
Cantor: No, listen. The goal is to reduce the deficit. And so if you've got some cuts that you can agree on to reduce the deficit take 'em.
Stahl: But revenues reduces the deficit.
Cantor: You can't tax your way out of that it's so bad. You can't tax your way out of it.
Stahl: Do you see the image of Congress part of your concerns, part of your portfolio?
Cantor: Absolutely. Absolutely.
He's worried about the Republican's hardline image and also his own which is why he invited us home to see the other side of Eric Cantor.
Cantor: So we're countin' on you to help us get the reality out to address that.
As the only Jewish Republican in Congress, he says if ever there was anyone who knows how to go along to get along it's Eric Cantor: a guy who grew up in the heavily Christian South.
Cantor: I'm sure there were times at which I was very aware of not being like others.
At home in Richmond, Virginia, he kept kosher and studied Hebrew; but at his elite private school, as one of only a handful of Jewish students, he just tried to blend in.
Cantor: Every morning, we'd go to chapel at the Collegiate School, and--
Stahl: Oh, my goodness, really?
Cantor: Oh yes, typically the program wasn't always religious, but there was always a prayer involved.
Stahl: Well, what about Christmas?
Cantor: I was in Christmas pageants. I sang, I was in the choir, and I would sing the Christmas carols and-- and--
Stahl: Did it make you uncomfortable?
[Cantor to child: You're gonna be on the camera.]
Cantor wanted to introduce us to his family: his wife of 22 years, Diana; daughter Jenna, son Evan and the only child still at home, Michael. He told us something that surprised us: that his button-down dad likes rap music.
Eric Cantor: I do the Wiz Khalifa stuff and Jay Z, Lil Wayne.
Stahl: Is he cool?
Michael Cantor: He's cool. No one would ever know it, but he's cool.
And this is Diana's mother.
Eric Cantor: I call her Mumma B. Her name is Barbara.
Stahl: Your mother-in-law lives with you?
Eric Cantor: Absolutely. Absolutely. We couldn't do it without her.
Stahl: Obama, the president has the same thing.
Diana Cantor: Yeah. Yes.
Stahl: You actually have a connection.
Eric Cantor: Right--
Diana Cantor: We do. We talk about that a lot actually. Yeah.
Stahl: Have you talked with-- does the president know?
Eric Cantor: Yeah.
Diana Cantor: Yes, yes.
Eric Cantor: Uh-huh. (affirm)
When they met, Diana was working at Goldman Sachs in New York. She still works in finance - as a partner at an investment management firm.
Mumma B: When I met Eric, I saw that it's good to be Republican too.
Eric Cantor: There you go.
Both his mother-in-law and his wife were liberal Democrats and while they have converted to the Republican Party, their beliefs don't always jibe with the congressman's.
Stahl: So you're pro-choice?
Diana Cantor: I am.
Stahl: Gay marriage? What does that mean?
Diana Cantor: I don't-
Stahl: You disagree with him?
Diana Cantor: I do disagree. There's really that respect. If I expect him to respect my views that could be different, I certainly need to respect his.
Given his upbringing and his marriage, Cantor says he's nothing like the intractable obstructionist the Democrats say he is.
Cantor: Nobody gets everything they want. And so--
Stahl: That's just exactly your image: that you want only what you want.
Cantor: But it's just I hope I'm not coming across like that now, because it's just not who I am. I mean, it really is--
Stahl: So are you ready to compromise?
Cantor: So I have always been ready to cooperate. I mean, if you go back to the first--
Stahl: What's the difference between compromise and cooperate?
Cantor: Well, I would say cooperate is let's look to where we can move things forward where we agree. Comprising principles, you don't want to ask anybody to do that. That's who they are as their core being.
Stahl: But you know, your idol, as I've read anyway, was Ronald Reagan. And he compromised.
Cantor: He never compromised his principles.
Stahl: Well, he raised taxes and it was one of his principles not to raise taxes.
Cantor: Well, he-- he also cut taxes.
Stahl: But he did compromise--
Cantor: Well I --
[Press Secretary: That's not true. And I don't want to let that stand.]
And at that point, Cantor's press secretary interrupted, yelling from off camera that what I was saying wasn't true.
[Reagan: My fellow Americans...]
There seemed to be some difficulty accepting the fact that even though Ronald Reagan cut taxes, he also pushed through several tax increases, including one in 1982 during a recession.
[Reagan: Make no mistake about it, this whole package is a compromise.]
Cantor: We as Republicans are not going to support tax increases.
So, we've seen the two sides of Eric Cantor: the push and pull between his hard fighting style on legislation that appeals to his party's conservative wing and his warm, Southern gentleman demeanor.
Stahl: This is a nice, big office.
Cantor: Well, this is it.
In Republican circles, he's seen as an ambitious man on the rise whose goal it seems is to one day be speaker of the House. For now he's working on humanizing his image, and presenting himself as more reasonable.
Stahl: As an American, are you proud of the president?
Cantor: You know, he is my commander in chief. I respect the man. I like the president. You know, the disagreements that we have are policy-based. You know, he's got a lot on his plate. I respect that. And I want to continue to try and work with him.
Stahl: So it's not a personal animosity between the two of you?
Cantor: Certainly not. Certainly not from my perspective.