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Why Eric Cantor won’t make the budget deal

By Ezra Klein,

Brendan Hoffman Getty Images Eric Cantor is pulling out of the debt-ceiling talks. But he’s not saying they should end. In fact, he’s saying they’ve been very successful thus far. “We have a blueprint to move forward to trillions of spending cuts and binding mechanisms to change the way things are done around here,” he said in a statement. Butr having agreed on spending, now the two parties need to agree on taxes. And Cantor doesn’t want to be the one to make that agreement. It’s time, he told the Wall Street Journal, for “the president to come in and talk to the speaker.”

Earlier this month, Major Garrett, the congressional correspondent for the National Journal, profiled John Boehner. “It is not by accident that Boehner put Cantor in the room with Vice President Joe Biden to negotiate a debt-ceiling increase and the budget cuts and process reforms necessary to win House passage,” he reported. “Boehner gave up some of his power to protect it. The debt deal must have Cantor’s fingerprints on it.”

But nor is it an accident that Cantor is fleeing the room now that the spending cuts have been chosen and the taxes have to be agreed to. For all the reasons that Boehner needs Cantor’s fingerprints on the deal, Cantor can’t put them there.

Cantor has the credibility with the Tea Party that Boehner lacks. But that’s why Cantor won’t cut the deal. The Tea Party-types support him because he’s the guy who won’t cut the deal. He can’t sign off on tax increases without losing his power base. But if he’s able to throw it back to Boehner, and Boehner cuts the deal, that’s all good for Cantor: Boehner becomes weaker and he becomes stronger. Which is why Boehner will also have trouble making this deal. It’ll mean he made the concessions that Cantor, the true conservative, didn’t. That’s not how he holds onto the gavel in this Republican Party.

One analysis of the House GOP right now is that there are two players in the GOP who can cut a budget deal: Eric Cantor and John Boehner (and, on some of the other budget issues, Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers). One of them is going to have to do it. Which means one of them is going to lose his job. The optimistic take is that what we’re seeing right now is a game of musical chairs over which one of them it’ll be.

But the pessimistic analysis is that if you had to write a plausible scenario for how America defaults on its debt, or at least seriously spooks the market, this is how it would start. After insisting on using the debt limit as leverage for a budget deal, the Republican leadership finds they can’t actually strike a deficit-reduction deal, but nor can they go back on their promise to vote against any increase in the debt limit that isn’t accompanied by a deficit-reduction deal. What follows is a lot of jockeying and fingerpointing, a short-term increase or two, and eventually, a market panic.

Cantor is putting personal power before country here, and in a very dangerous way. If Boehner actually does manage to cut a decent deal despite Cantor’s effort to throw him under the bus, he may not hold on as leader of his party, but unlike Cantor, he’ll deserve to. For better or worse, this is when we learn whether anyone on the Republican Party’s leadership team is actually prepared to lead.

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