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House Republican deputy whip Eric Cantor on benchmarks and earmarks.

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HH: Continuing in my endless quest to figure out what the hell the Republicans are doing on the Hill, I’m joined now by deputy whip of the Republican caucus in the House, Eric Cantor. He’s number three in the Republican leadership. Congressman Cantor, always a pleasure, welcome.

EC: Hugh, it’s good to be with you.

HH: You know, I hate benchmarks, the Republican Party base hates benchmarks. They sound like contingent support. What’s going on, Congressman?

EC: Well, you know, I don’t…today, I can tell you, not on the Iraq resolution, but we just had a showdown on the floor regarding earmarks. And as you know, there was the ultimate earmark last session in the bridge to nowhere, and I think the American people, rightfully, finally threw their hands up in desperation and exasperation, that Congress needs to change the way it works, and that the hope would be that we could remove earmarks from pork barrel spending from these spending bills that come out of the House. So today, the Democrats brought forward an omnibus bill, which was a combination of all the bills they needed to get across this floor to finish up the funding for the government for this year. And in fact, what they did is they kept in about a half a billion dollars in pork barrel earmarks, and what we did on the Republican side of the aisle is we said look, I mean, American people spoke out loudly and clearly. Let’s deliver the message that we heard them, and use the money for things that really impact people’s lives, and that frankly address the primary issue before the American people, which is national security. So we put this money, and redirected it towards money for military housing, and to make sure that our men and women who are overseas fighting, have what they need when they come home to this country, and what their families need in order to be able to continue their service.

HH: Now Congressman, that’s great. But what they need more than anything else is the knowledge that the Congress of the United States supports them and their mission. They want you to succeed, and that all of their effort, including the sacrifice that many have made who are wounded, and the ultimate sacrifice, those who are dead, will not be thrown away. Tell me why…again, I go back to benchmarks. They hate this. They think that you guys are cutting the President’s legs out.

EC: Well, you know, Hugh, again, I don’t quite know what you’re talking about, because what we have rallied behind in the House is HR511. It’s a bill sponsored by Sam Johnson, and what this bill says is that this Congress will never refuse to fund our troops when they’re in the battlefield.

HH: I like that. I agree with you. The Sam Johnson resolution’s super. But the Republican leader, Boehner, has got a benchmarks resolution. Has that been withdrawn?

EC: No, his resolution is out there, and frankly, what the resolution does is it acknowledges that President Bush is the Commander-In-Chief, and these are his decisions to make as far as commitment of our troops, and the execution of our mission in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. As we know, we are in a war against the terrorists, and some have even called it the third world war. And it is up to the Commander-In-Chief to make sure that we execute on a mission that he and his generals decide. Congress’ role is to fund whatever it is that the administration decides is appropriate. So what Leader Boehner’s bill does is it allows Congress to know how taxpayer dollars are being spent.

HH: But it also establishes benchmarks for the Iraqi government, which everybody who understands what’s going on here understands that those are contingent provisions threatening withdrawal of American support, which I think have the effect of, as General Petraeus said the other day concerning the Senate resolution very closely allied to this, of encouraging the enemy. Can’t we get rid of that?

EC: Well, I mean, there’s one thing that we ought not have benchmarks for, and that is to tie some type of commitment on the part of Congress or the administration as far as what the Iraqi government can or can’t do. We want to be able to measure the progress that we’re making in the field, and the progress being reported by our generals. But if we’re going to leave it up to the Iraqi government in its very volatile state, I mean, I agree with you that those kind of benchmarks are not helpful, and that we need to have benchmarks that we can demonstrably show that our troops are being successful in their mission.

HH: But again, what happens if we don’t make those benchmarks? Because the implication is, you know, we’ll see you later. We’re gone.

EC: Well, it’s not…no, certainly not. It’s not black and white like that. Frankly, we want to make sure we succeed. I mean, that’s ultimately what the mission and the goal is, is that America succeeds and wins this war, in this one front in the large war against the terrorists.

HH: But given that what General Petraeus said about resolutions that convey other than wholehearted support of the American people encouraging the enemy to believe…

EC: I think if you look at the language of this bill, you will find that there is nothing in this bill that would be akin to what’s going on in the Senate, where they have a multitude of options…

HH: Oh, the Senate is a nightmare, and you guys have a very good resolution in HR511. But the leader’s resolution does talk about the Iraqi government meeting benchmarks. And I think what that says to the enemies is that you guys are not as supportive as they might have once believed. And given that that’s the impression as the whip, don’t you want to go to the leader and sit down with the caucus and get rid of that stuff?

EC: Well listen, there is no question the important thing to remember is our troops read the papers and listen to the news and watch the news as well, and it is very, very important that they never hear that this Congress is pulling the rug out from underneath their mission, because without their sacrifice, we wouldn’t be here today. So I couldn’t agree with you more that we don’t want to send the message to our troops that we ever will fail them in the battlefield.

HH: Well, given that that’s the message I’m getting, and that’s the message that they’re getting who talk to me, and I think it’s widespread, doesn’t that call for a revisit by the leader and his team to reexamine what he put out there, because clearly, it is not communicating what I think you guys wanted to communicate.

EC: Well, I mean, again, I think that there is flexibility in these benchmarks. Again, what the object is, is to ensure that the troops are getting what they need, and that the President and his mission is getting what he needs to win. That’s ultimately the goal. We want success, we want victory in Iraq. And when the President came to meet with the Republican conference last week, he told us, he said look, I know that in the hearts of the members in this room, and certainly in the hearts of those who have served in this Congress and in leadership, we want America to win.

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HH: Congressman, everyone says, and I know this to be true, you’re really one of the smart guys in the caucus. And this is the reality, it’s not my view. Benchmarks convey weakness and defeatism, it conveys that you guys are putting distance between yourself and the White House, that you’re attempting to give yourself a little bit of cover, and that’s what we know it to mean. Now I don’t think we can change the seemiotics, to use a Princeton word. It’s just what it means. Given that, why don’t you guys dump them?

EC: Well, I mean, Hugh, again, I don’t…I think you’re wrong in asserting that anybody wants to distance themselves from the White House and what we’re trying to do, because clearly, it is in the interest of the safety of the American people that we stand by our troops. So I don’t think that what you have is in any way an attempt to distance ourselves or send the message to troops that this Republican Party in this country is in any way backing away from the troops.

HH: I hear you, but that’s…and I believe you. But that’s not how it’s being interpreted. And now given that, and I know I’m not alone on this. I know you guys have seen 30,000 signers of the NRSC Pledge, I know you’ve heard it at the Congressional Committee, because I get the copies of the e-mails. Given that it’s misfired, that the communication is wrong, the message is broken, don’t we start over? Or are you guys going to stubbornly stick to that which is broken?

EC: You know, again, I think that’s really where the whole debate is around, is how can be best succeed in Iraq. And in my opinion, the best road to success and to victory is through the President and his generals, and the commanders on the ground who understand the situation. So in my opinion, we need to stick to that, and we need to make sure that the commanders on the ground, and the Pentagon thinks they’re getting the support that it needs in order to properly execute the mission.

HH: And we’ve got a minute and a half. I agree, you and I agree on that, as I think the Leader does. But you guys have not communicated that. It’s misfired. So are you going to go back and work with the caucus to get rid of that?

EC: Well again, I think…I mean, Congress’ role is to make sure that taxpayer dollars are spent on what’s important to the American people. In the bill that the Leader has presented, there is language that says look, I mean, Congress in being the steward and shepherd of taxpayer dollars that is paid in by the people of America, it doesn’t belong to the Congress or the government, that those dollars are being spent to make sure that our troops have what they need. So if in the process of the conduct and execution of this mission the President can communicate to Congress…

HH: We’re out of time, Congressman. I’m really regretful of this, because I just…I’m hearing you guys don’t care what people think. That’s what I’m hearing, and that’s what got us the minority, and that’s what’ll keep us there, but I hope you’ll come back and talk with me again.

End of interview.


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