Eric Cantor Moves into the Center Stage of Debt Talks

Cantor makes a bad negotiating partner but a great enemy for Democrats

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Two hours of debt ceiling negotiations between President Obama and House Republicans ended with Obama walking out of the meeting, fed up particularly with Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Though House Speaker John Boehner has supposed to be the lead Republican in the talks, Cantor has taken an increasingly important role, and the president doesn't like it one bit, according to Cantor himself.

After the meeting, Cantor strode into an area in the Capitol where reporters were waiting and gave a blow-by-blow account of what happened, The New York TimesCarl Hulse reports. The Republican said he repeatedly floated the idea of a short-term increase in the debt limit, which would require several more votes before the 2012 elections. At that point the president said, according to Cantor, "Eric, don't call my bluff. I'm going to the American people with this. ... I'll see you tomorrow."

Democrats dispute Cantor's account, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi telling The Hill's Russell Berman and Sam Youngman that the president was gracious, and a Democratic aide saying "Cantor was playing the role he's been playing throughout this whole thing--being not productive." But event Democrats' version of events make it sound like Obama wanted to do this to Cantor:

Democrats are eager to make Cantor the face of Republican stubbornness, Politico's Jonathan Allen reports, as a way to get a leg up in the negotiations: "The Senate's Democratic Policy and Communications Committee pulled this quotation from Cantor's high school yearbook to portray him as unreasonable: 'I want what I want when I want it.'"

What does he want? Though late last month he declared his opposition to a short-term deal, Slate's Dave Weigel reports, Cantor is walking back from that position. Instead of the $4 trillion "grand bargain" floated earlier, both sides can agree on about $1.5 trillion in spending cuts. But Democrats insist there must be measures to raise revenue, too. Cantor told Obama that the parties hadn't agreed on enough spending cuts to vote for a big enough debt limit increase to get them through the 2012 election, Politico reports. Obama countered that Cantor "would either have to agree to tax increases or give up on his demand that the debt hike be matched dollar-to-dollar to the cuts--that is, $2.5 trillion in deficit-reduction over 10 years in exchange for a $2.5 trillion hike in the debt ceiling."
On that score, Democrats have the voters on their side: a new Quinnipiac poll shows that 67 percent of voters would prefer a deficit-reduction deal to include tax hikes, Politico's Jennifer Epstein reports. And 45 percent think Obama's proposals sound like they're "closing loopholes" instead of increasing taxes. Further, though a majority say they disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy, by a split of 48 percent to 34 percent, more people say they'd blame congressional Republicans over Obama if the debt ceiling fails to be raised.
Numbers like that have caught several Republicans' attention, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who went on Laura Ingraham's radio show to caution his fellow Republicans that they might be handing Obama a political victory, Politico's David Rogers reports. McConnell said he offered his controversial plan to raise the debt limit because:
"I refuse to help Barack Obama get reelected by marching Republicans into a position where we have co-ownership of a bad economy... The reason default is no better an idea today than it was when Newt Gingrich tried it in 1995 is that it destroys your brand and would give the president an opportunity to blame Republicans for a bad economy."
Despite all the frustration, there are signs of progress, The Wall Street Journal's Carol E. Lee and Janet Hook report. Both sides now have "a clear set of choices if they want to reach a deal... Republicans can either give in on their opposition to tax increases or back off of their demand for spending cuts that match or exceed the amount of a borrowing-limit increase. Or Democrats can accept more spending cuts and retreat from their insistence on tax increases. The question now is who is going to blink."
NBC News' First Read agrees that there are "three paths to resolution"--McConnell's plan to make it easier to pass a limit increase, the Biden $2.5 trillion plan, and Senate Majority Harry Reid's idea to create a bipartisan commission whose recommendations couldn't be tweaked by lawmakers but would receive an up-or-down vote. Further, Obama is considering inviting the Republican leaders to Camp David--perhaps to Cantor's disappointment--to "keep them from cameras."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.