Cantor Says Obama Stormed Out of Budget Talks

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Disputed accounts of the longest debt-limit meeting yet

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In a fit of anger, President Obama abruptly concluded Wednesday's debt-ceiling meeting at the White House with congressional leaders -- says House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) -- a description that Democrats cast as "overblown."

"He said to me, 'Eric, don't call my bluff.' He said, 'I'm going to the American people with this,' " Cantor said.

"He shoved back and said 'I'll see you tomorrow,' and walked out," Cantor told reporters at the Capitol, giving a remarkably in-depth description of a closed-door meeting.

House Speaker John Boehner's office had no immediate comment, but a senior Democratic aide later said it was Cantor who "rudely interrupted the president three times to advocate for short-term debt-ceiling increases while the president was wrapping the meeting."

Another Democrat familiar with the talks said Obama simply decided that the day's session -- the longest one yet -- had gone on long enough. The source also disputed the notion that the session was unusually tense.

The session opened with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner noting the announcement by credit-ratings agency Moody's that it would review the United States' Aaa status and contending that it underscored the urgency for an agreement that could permit the debt-ceiling hike. That led to a long discussion of discretionary and mandatory cuts with Obama repeatedly returning to his belief that a big deal would be preferable to a small one. When Cantor again proposed that a temporary extension of only a few months should be adopted, that idea was firmly rejected by the president, as he had done at his press conference on Monday.

The meeting ended with Obama asking the leaders to return to the White House on Thursday with other possible spending cuts and ideas about enforcement mechanisms. He also set an informal deadline for progress, telling them he believes they have until Friday to figure out what is possible. No consequences were mentioned if that deadline is missed.

Despite Wednesday's atmospherics, talks are set to continue on Thursday at 4:15 p.m.

According to Cantor's blow-by-blow account, the heated exchange occurred after he, for the first time, suggested to Obama that a short-term debt-ceiling hike might be necessary, given how far apart the White House and Hill Democrats remain from Republicans on a goal of reaching $2.4 trillion in savings over the next decade. That dollar figure had been a target the group has been working on, based on earlier work by a bipartisan panel of lawmakers headed by Vice President Joe Biden.

But Cantor said Wednesday's talks indicated that the amount of agreed-upon savings has actually dropped since last week, from $1.7 trillion, to less than $1.4 trillion, the result, he claimed, of spending add-ons by Democrats. Cantor said new numbers on unemployment insurance and an additional $80 billion in health care spending suddenly emerged. For instance, he said congressional Democrats want the Medicare prescription drug price-fixing and the return of "dual eligibles" on the table, a $50 billion item.

"Again, that's something that we've never agreed to. Again, the Biden talks and the progress that we made seems to have been erased now," said Cantor.

And Cantor said that if negotiators can't hit the $2.4 trillion target, "then the House is not going to increase the debt limit $2.4 trillion, ok?" He added that "two votes, or maybe more, might be needed" on debt-ceiling increases. That strategy had been opposed by Republicans, but Cantor said they were now making a concession to avoid taking the nation to the brink of default.

"That's when he got very agitated, seems to me," said Cantor. "And he said he'd sat here long enough, and that no other president -- [including] Ronald Reagan -- would sit here like this, and that he's reached the point where something's got to give."

Cantor said Obama told him, "You've got to compromise on your dollar for dollar insistence or you compromise on the big deal -- which means raising taxes." That's when the president warned him not to "call my bluff," said Cantor.

"I was somewhat taken aback. Because, look, I was compromising. I have always said the House is not going to support more than one vote on this," said Cantor. But he said Obama did not seem to appreciate the spirit of Republicans making such a concession.

"I know why he's upset, this is frustrating, and you know the concern is, 'Well we get into a political year' and all that kind of stuff. Listen, this is policy," said Cantor. "This is important for the nation to try to get our fiscal house in order and I'm not sure that we can get to $2.4(trillion)."

After Cantor's remarks, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a statement that under Obama's leadership, "including a two-hour meeting today, House Democrats continue to work toward a balanced agreement that will protect seniors, grow the economy, and strengthen the middle class while reducing the deficit."

"The president has extended the respect and the courtesy to the bipartisan House and Senate leaders to listen to their concerns, their priorities, and their suggestions at extensive meetings over the past few weeks, and now we have a responsibility to act," said Pelosi.

As for Cantor, a Democratic aide said, "This is just more juvenile behavior from him and Boehner needs to rein him in, and let the grown-ups get to work."

Image credit: Larry Downing/Reuters

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Presented by

Billy House, Katy O'Donnel & George E. Condon, Jr.

Billy House is a staff writer (Congress) for National Journal. Katy O'Donnell is a staff reporter (budget, taxes, and trade) for National Journal. George E. Condon, Jr. is a staff writer (White House) for National Journal.

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