Updated: 2:52 p.m.
Partisan tensions over debt ceiling talks hit a new low Thursday with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) trading barbs over each other’s performances during recent White House meetings.
Reid appeared to start the brawl by calling Cantor “childish” on the Senate floor Thursday, saying Cantor isn’t taking the risk of a debt default seriously.
Later Thursday, Reid reinforced his contention that Cantor has not been helpful to debt talks, telling reporters, “Unless he changes and starts being someone who contributes to the solution, the answer is ‘no.’ He has not been constructive.”
But Republicans quickly pushed back, citing private praise Reid had offered Cantor in White House discussions to raise the debt limit and couple it with a deficit reduction package.
“House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has shown he shouldn’t be at the table and Republicans agree he shouldn’t be at the table,” Reid said on the Senate floor Thursday, a day after Cantor complained to the press in the Speaker’s Lobby about being dressed down by President Barack Obama at a tense Wednesday negotiating session.
“Even Speaker [John] Boehner and Minority Leader [Mitch] McConnell seem to understand the seriousness of this situation,” Reid said.
Reid noted that Cantor walked out of earlier negotiations with Vice President Joseph Biden. “It was childish,” he said.
Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring hit back at Reid. “It’s not surprising that Harry Reid doesn’t want to cut spending and wants to raise taxes with so many Americans out of work,” he said. “This isn’t a question about personalities — Eric, President Obama or Harry Reid — it’s about doing what is right for the country and trying to find a productive solution that finally demonstrates Washington is serious about America’s fiscal health.”
A GOP aide familiar with the talks said Reid had praised Cantor privately just a few days ago.
The aide said that at the first meeting with Obama, they went around the room saying who could support a “Grand Bargain” and when they got to Cantor, he said he couldn’t go along with it.
According to the source, “Harry Reid after the meeting went up to Cantor and said, ‘Eric, I don’t know you very well, but I just want to thank you for being the only one to be honest in this room. We all come in here and say a lot of things, but I appreciate what you did.'”
The aide said, “I’m curious as to how Majority Leader Reid would reconcile his assertion that Eric is too childish to be in the room, but just a few days ago believed he was the only honest person in the room.”
Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson confirmed that a conversation did take place.
“At an early meeting, Sen. Reid politely thanked Eric Cantor for being frank by way of advising him that in his experience, great agreements are only achieved through open, frank exchanges, and a willingness to put ideology aside and reach a reasonable compromise,” Jentleson said.
“Sen. Reid had high hopes that Eric Cantor would rise to the occasion and demonstrate the courage and the ability to forge a bipartisan deal that will cut our nation’s deficit and put us on a path to fiscal sanity,” he said. “But after seeing Eric Cantor’s performance over the last few days, Sen. Reid is disappointed to see that Eric Cantor has demonstrated neither that courage nor that ability, and has instead been nothing but a disruptive force over the course of these negotiations.”
Dayspring responded to Jentleson, saying, “At least Leader Reid admits that he thanked Eric Cantor for having the courage to do what he himself couldn’t — be frank and tell the truth.”
Jentleson disputed the phrasing from the background aide.
“What Reid actually said was: ‘At least you’re being honest,'” Jentleson said.
Jentleson also attacked the aide who provided details of the private conversation on the condition of anonymity.
“Senator Reid also hopes that whoever is leaking the details of a private conversation between Senator Reid and Eric Cantor would have the courage to do so on the record, instead of hiding behind blind quotes. Just a few days ago, Eric Cantor himself expressed outrage at the practice of leaking the details of private conversations, so we certainly hope it isn’t his office that is circulating this account.”
Other Democrats also criticized Cantor.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) accused Cantor of standing in the way of a reasonable deal. “He is basically standing in the way and it’s a shame. … If Eric Cantor decides everything, I fear we’ll be in default,” Schumer said.
And asked about the mood of the group of Congressional leaders and Cantor’s assertion that Obama walked out of Wednesday’s meeting, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday it was a nonissue.
“That’s how meetings with the president end. You don’t leave first, the president leaves first,” the California Democrat said at a press conference. “That’s appropriate unless somebody in the room thinks that he or she should have had the last word … but I think that would be a breach of protocol.”
Jessica Brady contributed to this report.