By Russell Berman and Sam Youngman - 07/13/11 11:43 PM EDT
Republicans said tense negotiations over raising the $14.3 trillion debt limit at the White House ended when President Obama stormed out of the meeting with a stern warning to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.): “Don’t call my bluff.”
“It ended with the president abruptly walking out of the meeting,” Cantor told reporters Wednesday upon returning to the Capitol.
“No. Absolutely not,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told The Hill in a brief interview when asked whether the president had acted as Cantor had described.
A Democratic source familiar with the negotiations said the reports of a dramatic or abrupt walk-out by Obama were overblown, but the source acknowledged that the president “said what he was going to say, got up and walked out.”
“The climax of the meeting was the president basically saying ‘What’s happening in this room confirms what everybody across the country thinks about Washington, D.C.,’” the official said. “Which is that people are more interested in protecting their base and political positioning than solving problems.”
The differing accounts came after the fourth consecutive day of White House debt talks.
Cantor said Obama became “agitated” when the majority leader said Republicans were open to holding two votes to increase the debt ceiling between now and the 2012 elections, an idea the president has rejected.
Obama said he wanted congressional leaders to decide by Friday what approach to take on the debt limit. The Treasury Department has set an Aug. 2 deadline for lifting the ceiling, and ratings agencies are warning that they will downgrade U.S. credit if Congress doesn’t act — an action that could send markets tumbling.
“We are very far apart right now,” Cantor said he told the president. “I don’t know if we can get there.”
Cantor said he asked Obama if he would consider allowing two votes on the debt ceiling to give leaders more time to negotiate additional budget savings while avoiding a calamitous default.
“That’s when he got very agitated, seemingly, and said that he had sat there long enough, and that no other president — Ronald Reagan wouldn’t sit here like this — and that he’s reached the point where something’s got to give,” Cantor said, describing the president’s reaction.
“He said to me, ‘Eric, don’t call my bluff. I’m going to the American people with this,’” Cantor said.
“I was somewhat taken aback,” he added, with a smile.
Democrats offered a different characterization of the meeting and the exchange, though House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told The Hill that the “gravity of the challenge” confronting negotiators “was weighing certainly on the president.”
Pelosi said she had never seen a president more gracious than Obama, whom she described as trying to end a meeting he had hosted.
“He stayed for two and a half hours and listened to what members had to say,” she said. “It was his meeting and the meeting had come to an end.
“The president could not have been more gracious. I have never seen a president spend so much time with the leadership of Congress day in and day out, respectful of their concerns,” Pelosi added.
House and Senate Democrats have ripped Cantor for days, and a House Democratic leadership aide described the majority leader’s account of Wednesday’s meeting as “Cantor’s Gingrich back-of-the-plane moment” — referencing a 1995 incident in which then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) complained about being seated near the back of Air Force One and was quickly depicted in the media as a crybaby.
“Obama was concluding the meeting, giving the closing remarks and talking about meeting tomorrow; Cantor interrupted him and raised for the third time doing a short-term, and Obama shut him down,” the aide said. “Cantor was playing the role he’s been playing throughout this whole thing — being not productive.”
A GOP aide said it was “the most tense meeting of the week.”
The aide said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) challenged Obama to offer real spending cuts and to stop using budget gimmicks.
“We’re not doing that anymore,” Boehner said, according to the aide.
Despite the tension, Obama and the Republicans did seem to find common ground on about $1.7 trillion in cuts over 10 years, cuts that were identified during talks led by Vice President Biden.
“And we’re willing to go further than that,” the Democratic official said. “It’s a pretty clear indication of how far the president has come in terms of his willingness to come off his maximalist position.”
The leaders are scheduled to return to the White House again at 4:15 p.m. Thursday to discuss mandatory spending, revenues and triggers, the source said.
Hoyer echoed Pelosi in saying Obama had tried to be flexible, but said there was “great difficulty” in trying to find a compromise.
“We had a pretty fulsome discussion on the specifics that the White House was prepared to agree to, or at least that they thought were options that were viable,” Hoyer said in an interview shortly after the meeting at the White House.
Hoyer added that “no decisions were made.”
Alexander Bolton, Molly K. Hooper and Erik Wasson contributed to this story.