GOP leader faces tough audience at Harvard

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) faced off with fervent opponents of the proposed Republican budget cuts Thursday, telling an audience at Harvard that slashing funding for popular programs was a necessary “trade-off” in tight fiscal times.

Cantor trekked to one of the nation’s foremost liberal bastions to outline the GOP’s economic vision, but it was a combative question-and-answer session after his 15-minute speech that provided the event’s most interesting exchanges.

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Students pushed Cantor to remove cuts to federal funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and AmeriCorps programs like Teach for America, which were included in the austere spending bill the House Republican majority approved last week. The legislation has yet to be enacted.

Cantor wouldn’t budge.

“This is about trade-offs. This is about that we don't have the money. We just don’t,” he told a student who asked whether he would “save one million lives” by restoring $1.5 billion in cuts to global HIV/AIDS funding.

A group of students responded with loud chants of “Fund Global Health!” and were escorted from the auditorium at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.

Cantor, the House’s second-ranking Republican, kept his cool throughout the event, telling the students he appreciated the exchange of ideas. One student began his question by accusing Cantor of having “a radical, free-market fundamentalist ideology” and suggested the GOP budget cuts were aimed at slowing down the economic recovery. The majority leader smiled and replied: “I want to congratulate you on a very creative design for a question.”

Protests were planned for outside the event, and the institute’s president, Trey Grayson, opened the program by urging the students in attendance to remain civil. The audience appeared to be politically split — several questioners praised Cantor for the GOP’s efforts in Congress. Many of his responses also generated applause from the crowd.

In his speech, Cantor said the country “finds itself at a crossroads.”

“Before us is a choice about who we want to be as a country, and believe me, there is a choice,” he said.

Cantor characterized the choice as between a European-style big government system and what he described as the American ideal of fostering economic opportunity by promoting innovation and entrepreneurship in the private sector. The Virginian quoted an observer who said Europeans “frowned on entrepreneurship” and said Chinese leaders visiting America wanted to know not about its government but about its centers of technology.

“They want to know how we do it. They want to know what our secret is,” Cantor said.

“The choice we must make is about changing course and renewing our commitment to reform,” he added.

While calling for reduced spending and a smaller government, Cantor avoided overtly partisan rhetoric. He barely mentioned Democrats or President Obama, though he did repeat his frequent criticism of the 2009 economic stimulus package as a failure.

And though conservatives often snicker at Harvard as representing out-of-touch liberal elitism, Cantor lauded the host university as “a crucible of innovation.”

Cantor defended other parts of the Republican agenda, including its vote to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood, the family planning group and abortion provider. He also restated his opposition to same-sex marriage and criticized the Obama administration for its decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a statement criticizing Cantor before the event had ended.

“While everyone recognizes the need to cut spending and lower the deficit, listening to a lecture on cutting spending from someone like Republican Leader Eric Cantor is only a reminder that he spent taxpayer money like a drunken sailor during the Bush years and is happy to keep spending it as long as it goes to his corporate special interest buddies,” DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson said.