By Mike Lillis - 04-19-14 06:00 AM EDT
How are relations between President Obama and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.)? Well, it's complicated.
Earlier this month, the House majority leader stood by Obama's side as the president signed a pediatric research law championed by Cantor. It marked a rare case of ideological opposites joining forces to move legislation in an election year.
Just two weeks later, the kumbaya moment was old news. The powerful politicians this week traded barbs over which party is to blame for the House's failure to consider immigration reform legislation — a spat suggesting the odds are long that Congress will overhaul the system in 2014.
The back-to-back episodes highlight the hot-and-cold swings that have marked the relationship between Obama and Cantor over the years. The two have shifted from being unlikely allies on issues as diverse as trade and voting rights to prickly foes on more bread-and-butter issues, such as healthcare and the economy.
The relationship between the two men is closely watched, especially because some in the nation's capital think Cantor will succeed House Speaker John Boehner if the Ohio Republican retires at the end of this Congress.
The recent pendulum swing also underscores the tightrope act both parties are attempting this year in the face of low public opinion toward both Congress and the White House. Party leaders want to energize their bases by delivering sharp attacks across the aisle over the other sides' policies. But they also want to show a cooperative face, if only to win favor from the many Independents who view Washington as a partisan quagmire where dollars get wasted and nothing gets done.
Obama and Cantor joined forces to enact the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act. Named for a 10-year-old Virginia girl who died of a brain tumor in October, the bill provides $126 million for pediatric disease research.
Although every House Democratic leader had opposed the measure, including Reps. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Steny Hoyer (Md.). Obama signed Cantor's bill into law on April 3.
The comity was short-lived. This week, after Obama called Cantor to discuss ways to move immigration reform, the Virginia Republican responded with a blistering statement accusing the president of having "no sincere desire to work together."
Cantor said an earlier statement from the White House, which had marked the one-year anniversary of the Senate passing an immigration bill and chided House Republicans for not following suit, is an indication that Obama "still has not learned how to effectively work with Congress to get things done."
"You do not attack the very people you hope to engage in a serious dialogue," Cantor said.
Obama responded Thursday, characterizing the conversation as "very pleasant" and suggesting Cantor was feigning indignation to bolster his conservative bonafides.
"You know, you're always kind of surprised by the mismatch between press releases and the conversation. I wished him happy Passover," Obama said during a White House press briefing. "And what I said to him privately is something that … I've said publicly, which is, 'There is bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform … and that Congress should act, and that right now what's holding us back is House Republican leadership not willing to go ahead and let the process move forward.'
"It was a pretty friendly conversation," he added.
A Cantor aide said Friday the majority leader would never have issued his immigration statement if Obama hadn't blamed Republicans, just hours earlier, for the impasse.
"The way to work with Congress is not to attack us in public and then call us in private," the aide said by phone.
There have been many other ups-and-downs marking the Obama-Cantor history.