A couple of hours before Thursday’s debt-limit negotiations, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor huddles with aides and reviews budget numbers. Across the rotunda, one of his fellow White House conferees, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, chastises Cantor for allegedly acting “childish” during Wednesday’s meeting.
Cantor, sitting across from me in his Capitol office, a bowl of untouched M&Ms at his side, shrugs at the slight and the many others that have been slung his way. He tells me that those who resort to name-calling, or cast him as intransigent, have knowingly misrepresented his actions.
“This is not a game,” Cantor says. “We have serious problems. We have put out very thoughtful proposals to try to address them. But sometimes, around here, that doesn’t always make it through.”
For months, Cantor has been a force in high-stakes talks, from the debt-reduction discussions led by Vice President Biden to the current Cabinet Room confabs hosted by President Obama. On Wednesday night, the ongoing efforts, he says, unfortunately veered into the personal when the president criticized the Virginia lawmaker for opposing tax increases.
The president “got very agitated,” Cantor told reporters Wednesday night at the Capitol. Cantor added that Obama then told him not to “call my bluff,” and said that he would take his argument to the “American people.”
Reflecting on the episode Thursday afternoon, Cantor chuckles over how dramatically the president behaved. He chalks up the heated conversation to politics more than anything. “They’re just not serious,” he says. “Even those things identified in the Biden talks have been cast aside, only touchable if we raise taxes.”
“I was willing to compromise,” Cantor contends. “I said, Mr. President, we want to do it right. I said, I agree with you, we ought not to go beyond August 2. But because the votes are not there in the House, I asked whether he was willing to come off his statement that he will veto that. That’s what led to the blowup.”
The impasse, he predicts, will continue, unless President Obama can agree to work with Republicans on a short-term extension coupled with significant spending cuts. “It is certainly at a point of frustration right now, but we are not giving up hope,” he says. One of the points he keeps making to the president, he says, is that Republicans have already shown that they will share the sacrifice, pointing to the House GOP budget, which tackles entitlement reform, as his main example. Democrats, he says, are the ones who need to show a similar commitment to fiscal discipline.
Still, Cantor wonders whether Obama already has, in essence, shut down the opportunity for a cuts-laden compromise. “I really do question when I’m sitting in the room, hearing the president say that we must not have any movement unless it takes us through the election,” he says. “That, to me, seems very political. I’d like to get it right, rather than just do something.”
Nine weeks ago, House Speaker John Boehner enlisted Cantor for the Biden group. Cantor, who last month got frustrated and left the sessions, tells me that he thought Biden was smart in how he moderated the closed-door discussions. It was only when Democratic leaders began to complain about the cuts being proposed that he began to lose faith in the White House’s commitment to solving the problem with Republicans.
“I’ve given the vice president credit and will continue to give him a lot of credit,” Cantor says. “He was able to keep apart philosophical differences and focus on how we can reduce spending. But after about six weeks, he began to hear marching orders from the other side of this building. They began to sound the alarm that the cuts had gone too far.”