Cantor Re-Emerges as Key Negotiator

Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:42pm

To anyone who will listen, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has an unequivocal message: He and Speaker John Boehner “are on the same page.”

The Virginia Republican on Monday did his best to brush aside questions about his relationship with Boehner, saying there is no daylight between them in the debt limit negotiations.

“The Speaker and I are on the same page. We don’t believe we should be raising taxes,” Cantor said during his weekly meeting with reporters.

Cantor — who quit negotiations with Vice President Joseph Biden last month, saying the issue of taxes needed to be kicked up to a higher level between the Speaker and President Barack Obama — has found himself back in the spotlight on the debt talks after Boehner abruptly rejected a “grand bargain” with Obama over the weekend.

That turn of events fueled speculation that neither Cantor nor Boehner wanted to be seen as owning a deal to increase the debt limit and that both were actively working to put the blame on each other.

“I really think it is a hot potato,” one GOP aide speculated. “Nobody knows which way the ball is going to bounce, and they’re just trying to not be the one that kicked it.”

Last week, the center of gravity seemed to shift to Boehner, who returned from a White House meeting Thursday seemingly positive about a deal and went so far as to speak to the Senate Republican Conference about it.

But that dynamic shifted Saturday evening after Boehner put out his statement rejecting the grand bargain, and word began to leak out that the talks would refocus on the work that Cantor had done with Biden. Should Cantor and Biden resume their negotiations, Cantor would again find himself as the top House Republican negotiating a deal that none of his base is in favor of — a move that could, in theory, clear Boehner of some of the responsibility for the final agreement.

Cantor, however, repeatedly rejected that idea Monday. “We are in the same place” on the issue, Cantor said, arguing that Boehner’s decision to reject the grand bargain was an effort to “address the big issues facing the country” without raising taxes.

The Majority Leader even went so far as to defend Boehner’s private talks with Obama — which reportedly included discussions of possibly decoupling the Bush-era tax cuts in exchange for a promise of later comprehensive tax reform.

“The Speaker never agreed to that. He never agreed to the trillion dollars of new taxes. Again, my sense is that is why those talks ended is because he just couldn’t get the administration off of the fact that they want to raise taxes,” he said.

Acknowledging that Republicans were a little wary of the talks because “there wasn’t a lot of information that was forthcoming,” Cantor downplayed GOP concerns with the talks and argued Boehner backed out when it became clear Obama was looking for things he could not support.

“I can tell you when you look at what the deal was, there was a request for over a trillion dollars in increased baseline, new revenues. There was a request reported that we were going to have to vote on decoupling the Bush tax cuts, the very issue that both sides agreed not to do in December. So how can [Boehner] sit here and continue those kind of discussions based on tax hikes? I mean, that’s all,” Cantor said.

At his own press conference Monday, Boehner sounded less like the deal-maker and more the GOP hard-liner. “There was never any agreement to allow tax rates to go up in any discussion I’ve had with the White House,” the Ohio Republican said, adding that Obama and Congressional Democrats must make more concessions on cutting entitlements.

Although both sides vehemently deny there are rifts between the two leaders, tensions have been evident for months. Cantor is an ambitious politician, and those around Boehner have viewed him with some suspicion. Likewise, Cantor supporters have worried that Boehner would try to force ownership of the final debt limit deal on the Virginian to avoid the wrath of the tea party movement, which opposes any increase in the debt limit.

The two have had similar episodes in the past — most recently during the continuing resolution debate, when Cantor and others in Boehner’s leadership team questioned his handling of the talks and worried he was giving up too much to the Obama administration.

Whispers of palace intrigue aside, at least for now, the two are publicly singing from the same hymnal, and questions about their relationship are clearly tiring Republicans.

At one point Monday, Cantor was asked whether he could foresee a scenario in which Boehner came forward with a deal he could not support.

“No, I think we are on the same page. I know you all love to write the soap opera here. And it is just that, it is something that I think belittles the real question here. And that is the difference between the sides, and that is between the fact that Barack Obama wants to raise taxes and Republicans don’t,” an exasperated Cantor said.