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What Eric Cantor wants

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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) leaves a press conference on budget negotiations. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Democrats like to mention Rep. Eric Cantor’s high school yearbook quote: “I want what I want when I want it.” Right now, it seems as if both Democrats and the House Majority Leader want the same thing: for Cantor (R-Va.) to become the face of the House GOP.

If a budget deal collapses because Cantor refuses to budge, Democrats can blame in­trac­table Republicans — and Cantor can boost his own reputation by saying he held the conservative line. But what’s good for Cantor and the Democrats isn’t necessarily good for the GOP as a whole.

First elected to the House in 2000 after 10 years in the Virginia state House of Delegates, Cantor has always been known for his hard work and intense focus. He’s been in leadership since his second term in Congress.

That ambitious attitude makes it easy to understand why Cantor has been frequently mentioned for higher office. He’s spent more than $10,000 on speech coaching from a go-to firm for Republicans seeking higher office. He’s been named as a possible candidate for governor, but he’s never put the time in with local leaders in Virginia that would suggest he’s truly interested. He was also mentioned as a possible candidate for Senate in 2006, 2008 and 2012, but each time he’s taken a pass. Some believe his staff leaked rumors that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was considering him for vice president.

Given the way he’s acted in the past couple of weeks, though, it seems Cantor’s ambition remains in the House.

Cantor’s office disputes the idea that he is planning any moves, noting that there were plenty of rumors about Cantor running against Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) for speaker this year. Like other whispers about Cantor’s future, nothing came of the talk. Despite frequent press about their political differences, Boehner made Cantor majority leader and the two have worked together closely.

But Cantor separated himself from the rest of the leadership on an unpopular budget deal earlier this year. And during the ongoing debt limit talks, he’s gone further in positioning himself as the GOP’s line of defense.

First, Cantor walked out of talks led by Vice President Biden. He urged Boehner to reject a “grand bargain” with Democrats. And last week, he described a personal confrontation with the president to reporters. At one point, Obama reportedly snapped at Cantor, asking who he was supposed to deal with.

Democrats raised money off Cantor’s account, in which Obama came off as the tough guy — or bully, depending on your perspective — in the room. They’ve found a new bogeyman in the aggressive Virginia Republican. And tea party Republicans in the House have taken it as a sign that Cantor won’t be bullied into accepting any tax increases.

Cantor’s office argues that he’s merely doing his job and his only goal is to be good at it.

“He’s the majority leader, so there’s an expectation that he’ll be out there making our case,” said deputy chief of staff John Murray. ”Eric is a passionate advocate for his conference. That’s his job, that’s his assigned role by the speaker, and that’s what he’s doing.”

At a press conference Thursday, Boehner awkwardly embraced Cantor, saying they was no distance between them when it came to the debt ceiling. But we could be headed for the moment when Cantor finally shows his cards.

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