Cantor Says Obama Stormed Out of Budget Talks

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.

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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