Eric Cantor in the spotlight during debt ceiling talks; Republicans dig in on taxes

July 12, 2011

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has become one of the leading voices for the Republicans during the debt ceiling negotiations as an anchor the anti-tax wing of the party. As David Fahrenthold and Paul Kane reported:

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.

Echoing the position held by Cantor, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConell stepped up his criticism of President Obama’s call for a balanced debt solution, accusing the White House of ‘smoke and mirrors.’ As Lori Montgomery and Felicia Somnez explained:

GOP leaders are flatly rejecting President Obama’s call to raise taxes on the wealthy as part of a bipartisan agreement to restrain the nation’s mounting debt.

Obama, for his part, has warned that he is looking for a significant slashing of the debt, and sacrifices from across the economic spectrum, rather than a more incremental approach.

“In my view the president has presented us with three choices: smoke and mirrors, tax hikes, or default. Republicans choose none of the above,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in remarks on the Senate floor Tuesday morning. McConnell said he was he was “proud of the fact that Republicans refused to play along.”

McConnell, Obama and other leaders of both parties are scheduled to meet at the White House at 3:45 p.m. for a third consecutive day of budget talks. But with each side repeatedly denouncing what the other is proposing, it was hard to imagine that any breakthroughs were imminent.

Dueling news conferences by Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) on Monday served as a testy prelude to an afternoon bargaining session that only emphasized the partisan divide, according to people on both sides with knowledge of the closed-door discussions.

During the meeting, Obama challenged Boehner to buck the anti-tax hard-liners in his party, who, the president suggested, are blocking the path to a landmark compromise to reduce borrowing by as much as $4 trillion over the next decade. Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) responded by urging Democrats to settle for a more modest, reductions-only deal that would save $2.4 trillion but would not touch tax breaks for the nation’s richest households.

Eric Cantor played a large role in urging John Boehner to reject an earlier potential compromise floated by the Obama White House, wrote Ezra Klein:

Here's what appears to have been in the $4 trillion deal they offered the Republicans: A two-year increase in the Medicare eligibility age. Chained-CPI, which amounts to a $200 billion cut to Social Security benefits. A tax-reform component that would raise $800 billion and preempt the expiration of the Bush tax cuts -- which would mean, for those following along at home, that the deal would only include half as much revenue as the fiscal commission recommended, and when you add the effect of making the Bush tax cuts a permanent part of the code, would net out to a tax cut of more than $3 trillion when compared to current law.

That last bit apparently killed the deal. It But it was actually the biggest concession on the table. Currently, Democrats are bargaining for some revenues now, with the option of forcing much more in revenues later. All they need to do to get $4 trillion in revenues next year is fail to come to an agreement with the Republican Party. And is there anything Congress is better at than not agreeing?

The deal Obama offered Boehner would've traded away the option to force much more in revenues later in order to get slightly more in revenues now. And it would have thrown in a slew of entitlement cuts and spending cuts as a sweetener.

In part, this is because the Obama administration, much to the disappointment of liberals, doesn't value the option to fight over taxes in 2012. They'd prefer to finish the debt debates now and move onto other issues after the election. They have no intention of letting the Bush tax cuts lapse in full, and since they're privately unsure that congressional Democrats will stand with them to let the cuts expire for incomes beneath $1,000,000, they don't see much upside in beginning their hoped-for second term with a bruising battle over taxes.

But they also know that if they get to 2012 without a deal, they're going to have to engage that fight whether they want to or not. And Republicans made that a lot more likely this week. The reality is that liberals should be sending Eric Cantor a fruit basket. It's increasingly clear that he has not only saved them from a deal they'd hate, but also stopped Obama from giving up a fight they want to have later.

More from The Washington Post

Amid continued negotiations, McConnell and Boehner escalate criticism of Obama

Steny Hoyer to Republicans: Sitting down at the table is not compromise

The debt ceiling debate: Eight great quotes

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