Eric Cantor is frustrated. Democrats refuse to negotiate on the defense sequester, and Cantor thinks they may simply want to see “a diminished Pentagon.”
As the debt-ceiling talks collapsed last year, House Republicans stuck a deal, but it was a deal they despised. At the eleventh hour, with the debt limit looming, they agreed that if party leaders failed to compromise on long-term spending reductions via a “supercommittee,” budget cuts specifically aimed at defense would begin in early 2013.
Ever since, House Majority Leader Cantor has assumed that the prospect of sending pink slips to soldiers would force the White House and Senate Democrats to work with him and Speaker John Boehner. Now, Cantor says, he’s not so sure.
“There really hasn’t been a good-faith attempt by the president or his party to come to any resolution,” Cantor tells me as we chat in his Capitol office. “It could very well be that the president had that in mind. Who knows? But there has not been any resolution and we are left with this sequester.”
That leaves Cantor and Boehner in a bind. If the impasse continues and the Pentagon budget is slashed, Democrats will assert that Republican leaders share responsibility. Cantor knows this, so behind the scenes, the Virginia lawmaker is working to ensure that the GOP makes their opposition to the cuts well known.
Part of Cantor’s strategy is legislative. On September 13, the House passed a resolution to prevent most of the automatic defense cuts. The White House promptly threatened to veto the bill, calling it an “unbalanced approach,” and Senate Democrats refused to take up the legislation.
The early-September bill followed a series of statements, speeches, and resolutions by GOP legislators about the defense cuts. On a daily basis, House Republicans have blasted the president for not leading, and in open letters, Boehner and Cantor have pleaded with Senate Democrats.
“It’s frustrating,” Cantor says. January may seem far away to some, but many defense contractors and Pentagon officials are already preparing for the possibility of a shrunken military budget. “We ought not to allow this to lay over into the lame-duck [session],” he says.
House Republicans seem to be hitting a brick wall every time they unveil an alternative to the sequester. But Cantor says it’s important to keep pressuring Democrats to help prevent the cuts. Public awareness of the Democrats’ inaction, he says, is not where it should be.
“One theory is, frankly, that the Democrats and the president want to see a diminished Pentagon, and somehow don’t subscribe to the same notion that we do, which is that it’s best to achieve peace through strength,” he says. “That could be a plausible reason for why the president is inactive.”
Moving forward, Cantor hopes to compel Democrats to negotiate by emphasizing the implications for national security. To learn more about those consequences, he recently met with General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to discuss the issue. “I am very worried,” Cantor says.
“My takeaway from that meeting was, simply, that the notion that most Americans have about America being a global power will be completely put in jeopardy if these cuts take place,” Cantor explains. “So, I am committed more than ever to find a way for us to replace the cuts and get it done.”
Of course, politics also play a part in the congressman’s calculus. He wants Democrats to pay a political consequence for dallying, and in Virginia, a state with a large military workforce, the president may be particularly vulnerable. In cities such as Norfolk, Va., concern about the cuts is palpable.
“The president’s inaction on this will make it so that he loses Virginia,” Cantor predicts. He appreciates Mitt Romney’s focus on the defense cuts during his frequent stops in the state, and he says George Allen’s Senate campaign has also played up the issue.
“It just speaks volumes about the president that he has been silent on this, absolutely silent, especially given the consequences,” Cantor says. He doesn’t know how things will play out in the coming weeks, but it’s clear he is increasingly pessimistic about anything getting done before the election.
Cantor and his aides point to Bob Woodward’s new book, The Price of Politics, as evidence of how Democrats have mangled the budget discussions. Midway through the book, Woodward writes about how the sequester was developed by Democrats as a way to force a debt-ceiling deal.
More than a year later, Cantor says, the cuts are still on the horizon but neither his colleagues across the aisle nor President Obama are interested in solving the problem. He knows the 2011 deal that Republicans struck led to this unacceptable situation, but he wants his party to get credit for trying to fix it.
“People are tired of the blame game,” Cantor says. “But we haven’t had a president who is willing to bring folks together to forge a consensus.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.