House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) rallied to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) defense Thursday afternoon, dismissing criticism of the number-two House Republican by congressional Democrats seeking to capitalize on GOP discord in the high-stakes battle over the country’s debt.
Putting his arm around Cantor’s back as the two stood together before a podium at a Capitol news conference, Boehner said that reports of divisions between the two leaders were overblown.
“Let me just say, we have been in this fight together, and any suggestion that the role that Eric has played in this meeting has been anything less than helpful is just wrong,” Boehner said. “I’m glad that Eric’s there, and those that have other opinions should keep them to themselves.”
Boehner’s remarks came hours after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) publicly criticized Cantor in remarks on the Senate floor.
“With so much at stake, even Speaker Boehner and (Senate) Minority Leader (Mitch) McConnell (R-Ky.) seem to understand the seriousness of this situation,” Reid said Thursday morning. “They’re willing to negotiate in good faith.”
By contrast, Reid said, Cantor “has shown that he’s shouldn’t even be at the table, and Republicans agree.”
At Thursday’s news conference with Boehner and other House Republican leaders, Cantor mused that “Leader Reid is frustrated, as we all are.”
“The speaker and I have consistently been on the same page, and it’s just as he laid out in terms of the principles that we are operating under ... that we are not going to raise the debt ceiling unless we have cuts in excess of that amount, that we don’t want to raise taxes and that we want to structurally change the system,” Cantor said.
Thursday’s exchanges were the latest sign of heightening tensions as negotiators work toward a debt-limit solution ahead of a July 22 deadline set by the White House.
At the Capitol on Wednesday evening after the latest negotiating session at the White House, Cantor spoke about the negotiations at length, telling reporters that President Obama had “abruptly” walked out of the meeting after Cantor had proposed holding two separate debt-limit votes. Democrats responded that the incident happened as Obama was wrapping up the meeting and that the president became agitated because Cantor had interrupted him.
Cantor also on Wednesday implicitly dismissed a “back-up plan” proposed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that would allow the debt limit to be raised but would place the brunt of the political burden on Obama and congressional Democrats.
In addition to Thursday’s open sniping over the debt limit, the parties also sparred privately. Republicans fired back against Reid by charging that Democrats’ harsh public words toward Cantor followed private praise of the Virginia Republican by Reid in the ongoing debt-ceiling talks.
A Republican aide on Thursday responded to Reid’s criticism by describing a scene that took place between Reid and Cantor after last Thursday’s debt-limit meeting at the White House. At that meeting, Obama described the outlines of a “grand bargain” on the debt ceiling, which Cantor said he would not be able to support because he believed it included tax increases.
Reid approached Cantor after the meeting and thanked him “for being the only one to have the guts to be honest in this room,” according to the aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the talks.
That wouldn’t have marked the first time that Cantor and Democrats in the talks had established some goodwill: In the first phase of debt-limit talks that played out over two months this spring, Cantor appeared to strike a surprising rapport with Vice President Biden, and the two repeatedly praised each other unprompted in their public updates on the talks.
But Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson disputed the GOP’s version of the Thursday encounter, calling it “way out of context and inaccurate in its implications.”
“At an early meeting, Sen. Reid politely thanked Eric Cantor for being frank by way of advising him that in his experience, great agreements are only achieved through open, frank exchanges, and a willingness to put ideology aside and reach a reasonable compromise,” Jentleson said, adding that Reid had told Cantor after the meeting, “at least you’re being honest.”
Reid “had high hopes” for Cantor’s leadership, Jentleson said, but after Cantor’s actions over the past few days, Reid was “disappointed to see that Eric Cantor has demonstrated neither that courage nor that ability, and has instead been nothing but a disruptive force over the course of these negotiations.”
Jentleson also took aim at the anonymous aide who described the encounter, noting that “just a few days ago, Eric Cantor himself expressed outrage at the practice of leaking the details of private conversations.”
It’s worth noting, of course, that leaking information anonymously through aides is a practice that has been employed on both sides of the aisle as well as by the White House in the ongoing debt-limit talks.
Update, 3:20 p.m.
Senate Democrats continued to train their rhetorical fire on Cantor at a news conference Thursday afternoon, arguing that the Virginia Republican has now become the main obstacle to a debt-limit agreement.
“It’s time for Leader Cantor to make some concessions,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a news conference with other Democratic leaders and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. “He’s the only one at the table who hasn’t yet. Speaker Boehner entertained the grand bargain President Obama offered. Even Leader McConnell has put a proposal on the table that at least recognizes the urgent need to avoid default.
“Leader Cantor has yet to make a constructive contribution to these discussions,” Schumer continued. “More than anything else, he is holding up an agreement at this point.”
Asked whether an agreement is possible with Cantor sitting at the negotiating table, Reid said the outlook was dim.
“Unless he changes and starts being someone who contributes to a solution, the answer is no,” Reid said. “He has not been constructive.”