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.”
Since then, Cantor says, the discussions have gone downhill, with the White House chipping away at the cuts it had openly considered during the Biden meetings as parts of a possible debt-limit package. Coming out of the Biden talks, Cantor says, “I believed that we were at a $2.2, $2.3 trillion–type number, Well, the president said that he felt like we were more at $1.7, maybe $1.8 trillion if you massage it. Then, yesterday, after staff members met at the White House, we get a paper telling us that the number is barely at $1.4 trillion.”
For all the news stories about Republican sniping, Cantor says it’s the Democrats who are in disarray. “It seems, now, that the president drew an arbitrary line at $1.7 trillion; then Reid and [House Democratic leader Nancy] Pelosi drew a line and said we’re at $1.4 trillion. Anything above that, they say, they’re going to need new revenues, new tax hikes on the table.”
Cantor shakes his head at the ever-evolving numbers in the Democrats’ offerings. Despite their inconsistent message, he says that he will continue to attend the summits, doing what he can to help broker a favorable agreement. “We need a short-term solution that meets the goals the speaker has set out,” he says.
There are rumors that relations between Boehner and Cantor are tense. The majority leader swats back that charge. “We’ve had a very productive working relationship,” he says. “We meet regularly, at least three, four times a week, maybe more. I have a very open dialogue with him. Both of us are team players. We share a philosophy of governance.” Boehner, he says, walked away from a “grand bargain” with Obama “for the same reason I walked away from the Biden talks: Democrats insisted on tax increases.”
What about the chatter that Boehner was potentially open to tax increases as part of a deal? “He never agreed to a tax increase,” Cantor says. He and the speaker, he emphasizes, despite all the reports, are on the same page. “The path ahead is for us to focus on delivering a result,” he says. “We will see a balanced-budget amendment come to the floor when we come back next week. We’ll see about ‘Cut, cap, and balance,’ and where that lies in all of this,” he adds, in reference to the fiscal plan proposed by the Republican Study Committee.
But if that fails, is Cantor willing to consider the McConnell plan, a legislative maneuver that would enable President Obama to raise the debt ceiling via a presidential veto? “I think Leader McConnell has put forward his proposal in case there was nothing else,” he says. “I remain focused on trying to meet the objectives that we are trying to achieve in the House.”
With that, he smiles and sips from a water bottle. An aide comes in with more papers. Things may be tense, and Cantor is under fire, but he is no mood to throw in the towel.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.