Cantor emerges as key player in debt negotiations

The negotiating tactics of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor would probably make him lousy at selling cars. But as Congress and the president try to strike a deal on the national debt, they have made Cantor a hero to ardent anti-spending conservatives.

Cantor (R-Va.) thinks the way to win this haggling session — one of Washington’s most important in years — is by walking out of it.

Last month, Cantor walked out of talks led by Vice President Biden. Cantor said the reason was Democrats’ insistence on raising taxes as part of a deal to increase the national debt ceiling.

Then, last week, Cantor urged House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to reject a possible “grand bargain” with President Obama, which could have included tax increases. Boehner pulled Republicans out of those talks.

Now, as Cantor joins other leaders at the White House for near-daily summits in the third grouping of negotiators, his moves have revealed him as a third major player in a legislative drama that had been dominated by Obama and Boehner. Where Boehner has sought to define what Republicans can do with their newfound power, Cantor, the House’s ambitious No. 2, wants to underline what Republicans would never do.

This is the first major test of that leadership style. Traditionally, congressional factions have made big deals by making big concessions to their opponents. Cantor seems to be willing to forgo the biggest of deals if it means conceding on any of his party’s key demands.

“I think behind this notion of ‘We want shared sacrifice’ that they continue to say means ‘We want to raise taxes,’ ” Cantor told reporters, rejecting a suggestion from Obama that both parties would have to make sacrifices to get a deal done. “And we don’t accept that you raise taxes in an economy like this.”

Cantor, 48, is a lawyer and former state legislator whose district includes some of Richmond’s suburbs. Upon being elected to Congress in 2000, he became the kind of ambitious legislator that his older colleagues both courted and feared.

In his second term, Cantor used connections in the Republican establishment to join the House leadership. Now in his sixth term, Cantor has sought a power base among the tea-party-affiliated conservatives who have sought to overthrow that establishment.

Through his “Young Guns” program, Cantor helped recruit many of the 87 new Republicans who won their seats last year. After the GOP took the House, he was elevated to Boehner’s second in command.

The challenge for the pair now is to strike a bargain without losing the country or their caucus. If lawmakers don’t reach a deal before Aug. 2, the United States is likely to run out of money and begin defaulting on its IOUs. But if the deal doesn’t include large spending cuts, the Republican leaders could face a revolt from the conservative rank and file.

Boehner and Cantor say they have no major disagreements over how to handle the debt negotiations. “The speaker and the majority leader work together closely and well,” a Boehner spokesman said Monday.

In an interview Monday night, Cantor accused the media of fixating on the relationship between the two leaders. “I never understand why, and maybe that’s just what sells newspapers,” he said, adding that he meets one-on-one with Boehner two to three times a week.

While Cantor made the decision to end the Biden talks on his own — and Boehner entered into talks with Obama without letting Cantor know — the majority leader said he has been kept abreast of the negotiations. “When there was news to relay, he would call me,” Cantor said.

But, after weeks spent in rooms with the two Republicans, Democrats say they see a difference between them. Boehner has reached out to Obama in pursuit of a historic deal. Cantor, by contrast, seems more focused on the limits of what the rank-and-file will accept.

And outside that limit, Cantor says, is a tax increase. “I feel like I have repeated myself and repeated myself” on the subject, he said Monday night.

In the talks led by Biden, Republicans and Democrats had largely identified more than $2 trillion in spending reductions. But Cantor and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) repeatedly clashed on Democratic efforts to raise taxes, Democratic and GOP aides said.

On June 23, Cantor pulled out. The talks effectively collapsed.

Then, this month, talks between Obama and Boehner over that “grand bargain” came to include suggestions of revenue increases. Boehner checked with Cantor and another deputy, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), both of whom objected to one proposal: the George W. Bush-era tax cuts being made permanent for the middle class but expiring for those making more than $250,000, said aides familiar with the discussion.

On Saturday night, Boehner said that a grand bargain was no longer possible. In a news conference Monday, Obama referred obliquely to the kind of criticisms that Cantor had voiced.

“Speaker Boehner has been very sincere about trying to do something big. I think he’d like to do something big,” Obama said. “His politics within his caucus are very difficult.”

But Cantor’s tactics have won support from many House conservatives, including members of the GOP’s freshman class. Rep. Kevin Yoder (R), a freshman from Kansas, said that Obama’s suggested tax increases seemed designed to lure Republicans into reneging on a signature promise.

“What we’re seeing here is an attempt by the president to find the most politically palatable tax increases he can dream up, [seeking] a way to find a seam or a hole” in Republicans’ resolve, Yoder said.

“Cantor’s just being very clear that we are not going to get drawn into any negotiation,” Yoder said.

The tone of the talks has been described as generally cordial, but Cantor’s role as conservative watchdog led to a sharp exchange in a bargaining session Sunday night. That night, Democrats had suggested counting as “savings” the decreased costs associated with military drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cantor did most of the talking for Republicans, Democratic and GOP aides said. He rebuffed that approach, calling it a “gimmick” for accounting purposes. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) snapped at Cantor, said the aides, saying that Republicans had recently passed a budget that uses the same tactic.

On Monday, with a potential default less than a month away, Cantor was asked to identify compromises that Republicans had offered to help negotiations along.

He told reporters that the negotiation itself was a compromise.

“I don’t think the White House understands how difficult it is for fiscal conservatives to say they are going to vote for a debt-ceiling increase,” Cantor said.

The next step in that negotiation, Cantor said, should be a return to the potential spending cuts identified in the Biden talks. He said he hoped that, in new talks, those cuts could provide a framework for a final debt-ceiling deal.

“Are you prepared to walk out of these talks as well?” a reporter asked.

“I certainly don’t want to walk out of these talks,” Cantor responded. But he indicated he still wouldn’t budge on tax increases.

“The votes aren’t in the House to raise taxes,” he said. “If they want to vote on the debt ceiling, they are going to have to come meet us.”

Staff writer Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

Read more at PostPolitics.com

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David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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