How Eric Cantor Gave Us an Endless Series of Fiscal Crises

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The person who deserves the most blame for the sequester -- the automatic spending cuts that kick in March 1 and will slow GDP growth by 0.5 percent -- is not President Obama or John Boehner, but House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. That's not just because the Virginia Republican wanted to delay a big deficit bill until after the election, when he thought he'd be working with President-elect Mitt Romney, but because Cantor can't decide whether the best course for his own career is to side with Boehner and more moderate Republicans or with the Tea Party radicals. The careening of his thinking on the question is the backbeat of one fiscal crisis after another, The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza reports.

Cantor comes across as very ambitious in Lizza's profile -- his staff even say he could be president someday. But Cantor doesn't seem to know how to achieve his career goals. He can't decide whether to help Boehner negotiate with the White House to pass actual legislation or to undercut Boehner to get conservatives' support. In the summer of 2011, Boehner had been negotiating with Obama on a grand bargain to raise the debt ceiling and reduce the deficit. Cantor helped kill it.

Until late June, Boehner had managed to keep these talks secret from Cantor. On July 21st, Boehner paused in his discussions with Obama to talk to Cantor and outline the proposed deal. As Obama waited by the phone for a response from the Speaker, Cantor struck. Cantor told me that it was a “fair assessment” that he talked Boehner out of accepting Obama’s deal...

[B]y scuttling the 2011 Grand Bargain negotiations, Cantor, more than any other politician, helped create the series of fiscal crises that have gripped Washington since Election Day.

From the ashes of the grand bargain rose the sequester. It was not a beautiful phoenix but a horrible monster.

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Cantor wavered again between helping Boehner and undercutting him in the back during the fiscal cliff negotiations at the end of 2012. Cantor endorsed Boehner's "Plan B," which would have permanently extended the Bush tax cuts for those making less than $1 million a year (Obama wanted $250,000 to be the limit). But conservative Republicans revolted because there weren't spending cuts included. Cantor seemed to draw a lesson from this. As the House got ready to vote on a Senate deal to extend the Bush tax cuts for those making less than $400,000, Cantor announced he wouldn't support it. "Once again, Cantor had abandoned Boehner at a crucial moment of the negotiations," Lizza writes. Cantor told The New Yorker that he'd given Boehner a heads up in a one-on-one meeting. Boehner's staff denies this; the speaker was "blindsided." But by January 15, Cantor was on Boehner's side again, voting for a Hurricane Sandy aid package. He should be interesting to watch as the sequester deadline hits.

Republican leadership, including Cantor, is not popular in the House. Frustrated House committee chairmen are trying to take back some power, The Washington Post's Paul Kane reported earlier this month. "Tired of watching as flailing leadership negotiations fail to produce any key legislation, these senior lawmakers hope that a return to the old days of subcommittee hearings and bill markups, floor amendments and conference reports may offer a path forward on everything from immigration to a long-term budget plan," Kane writes. Cantor is also not popular in his home state -- his favorable rating in Virginia is 27 percent. And he's not popular nationally, either. Lizza reports Cantor knows "his own unpopularity has become an impediment to the Republican cause."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.