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Can Cantor Reach Boehner’s Debt Deal Goal?

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Tuesday that a final debt limit agreement may be out of his control, despite his position on the panel led by Vice President Joseph Biden that has been tasked with cutting a deal.

Asked if he thought the Biden panel would be the group that crafts an agreement, the Virginia Republican bluntly said, “I have no idea.” He added, “the Speaker [John Boehner] is having discussions” of his own with the White House and Senate Democrats, which could also produce an agreement.

“There are plenty of discussions going on,” Cantor said.

In many ways, Cantor was simply confirming what many insiders have suspected since President Barack Obama announced the formation of the Biden group weeks ago, namely that it would provide a public show while Boehner, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did the real negotiating in private.

But his remarks come just a day after Boehner used a speech to the Economic Club of New York to say he would reject any deal that does not include spending cuts equal to the increase in the debt limit, which publicly set the bar for the Biden group — and Boehner’s hand-picked appointee to that group — essentially out of reach. Insiders say it’s a peek into the jockeying that’s going on at the top of the GOP leadership team to remain in good standing with the party’s vocally conservative base.

“Without significant spending cuts and reforms to reduce our debt, there will be no debt limit increase. And the cuts should be greater than the accompanying increase in debt authority the president is given,” the Ohio Republican said in his speech at the Economic Club of New York.

“We should be talking about cuts of trillions, not just billions,” Boehner said. “They should be actual cuts and program reforms, not broad deficit or debt targets that punt the tough questions to the future.”

Boehner’s demand for such large cuts marked a sharp escalation in the ongoing debate with Democrats in advance of talks to increase the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner predicts that the nation will default in early August unless Congress acts.

Boehner also reiterated his opposition to increasing taxes to address the nation’s debt and remained adamant that entitlements stay on the table.

“With the exception of tax hikes, which will destroy jobs, everything is on the table,” Boehner said.

Republican aides Tuesday said Boehner’s decision to lay down such a bright line for the negotiations has essentially left Cantor boxed in to a no-win situation. Cantor almost certainly cannot persuade the Biden group to produce a deal like the one Boehner outlined. And since the Biden talks may not produce a final agreement anyway, the best the Majority Leader could have hoped for was to use them as a platform to push for GOP spending and budget priorities while still managing his members’ expectations.

For instance, Cantor has repeatedly insisted that he is pushing for the GOP budget outlined by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) earlier this year. At the same time he has warned Republicans that Democrats and the White House are unlikely to accept Ryan’s Medicare reform proposals and has emphasized the need to find “areas of commonality” with Democrats.

But with Boehner setting the goal so far to the right, Cantor’s job will be more complicated, since conservatives will see anything short of Boehner’s demands as less than successful.

As might have been expected, Boehner’s hard-nosed speech hit a chord with conservatives, and Republicans on Tuesday were quick to line up behind him.

“I think he laid out some parameters that almost all of us could agree on,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) praised Boehner’s approach. “I think most Americans can relate to what John is saying. …The idea of if you are going to raise the debt limit, cut the government by an equivalent amount I think will make sense to a lot of Americans, but to get to that number, you’ve got to do entitlement reform.”

Even Cantor was publicly endorsing Boehner’s statements.

“What his message is, I think, what most Americans believe: that if we’re going to seek an increase in the credit limit of the country, that this country’s got to be worthy of that, which means we’ve got to get the fiscal house in order,” Cantor said.

Predictably, Democrats were hammering Boehner’s proposal.

“We shouldn’t be drawing lines in the sand,” Reid said when asked about Boehner’s demand that tax increases not be included in any deficit package. “I think it’s unfair, I think it’s really unfair. I think the American people realize that.”

The Nevadan said polls showed that more than 70 percent support eliminating tax breaks for oil companies.

Reid also said that Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad’s (D-N.D.) budget blueprint will include a 50-50 split on deficit reduction between taxes and spending.

Reid said that reducing the deficit by trillions of dollars is possible. But, “it has to be a fair approach toward balancing the budget,” he said.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, will be heading to the White House on Wednesday to talk about the budget, while Senate Republicans will head there Thursday. Reid said that he requested the meeting and it had been planned for last week but was delayed.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report