Republicans: Walkout from Biden-led negotiations was long planned

GOP aides and lawmakers said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) decision to exit debt talks led by Vice President Biden was inevitable.

The timing of Cantor’s exit from the talks has been discussed for weeks, and senior House Republicans cast it as a natural progression for the negotiations. 

“There have been discussions about when these talks need to end and when the Speaker and the president need to get in the game,” one GOP aide explained.

ADVERTISEMENT
Democrats suggested Cantor’s decision was meant to undermine House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) by forcing him to decide whether the elimination of any tax breaks would be included in a final deal to raise the debt ceiling and reduce annual deficits. 

But Republicans pushed back hard at that narrative, describing a coordinated effort that was weeks in the making. 

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Cantor consulted Boehner Thursday morning before announcing his decision to leave the talks, which puts those negotiations in limbo.

Congressional spectators, the media and lawmakers have been carefully tuned to the relationship between Cantor and Boehner since the duo ascended to their current positions in GOP leadership. Cantor is seen as a potential future Speaker, and political operatives are constantly looking for signs of division between the two — particularly for signs that Cantor is trying to make a play for conservatives in the conference. 

Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), the budget chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said the conservative group had not urged Cantor to quit. 

At this point, the RSC wants Obama to publicly float a solution to the current debt-ceiling quandary. That way Republicans will know Democrats cannot back out at the last minute by saying the final deal was not acceptable to Obama, Garrett said. 

Boehner and Cantor are under intense pressure to win significant spending cuts in the talks with the White House. They are leading a House majority that includes a record freshman class of 87 members, some of whom were unhappy with the size of spending cuts included in a deal earlier this year on 2011 spending.

The two Republicans are also being watched by Wall Street, as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has warned of catastrophic effects to the economy if lawmakers fail to raise the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling by Aug. 2, when his department says it will no longer have flexibility to pay the nation’s bills. 

Republicans said it was inevitable that Boehner, who met quietly with the president at the White House late Wednesday, would eventually take the lead role in the talks. This is something they said Boehner himself suggested on June. 1. 

At that time, Boehner told a small group of reporters that if Democrats and Republicans were “serious about no brinksmanship,” negotiations needed to move more swiftly and would need to involve the Speaker and president.

“The president could engage himself,” Boehner said. “I’m willing, I’m ready — it’s time to have the conversation, it’s time to play large ball, not small ball.”

Boehner did not seem surprised by Cantor’s decision to exit the Biden-led talks Thursday.

At a press briefing, he said he understood Cantor’s frustration but declined to say whether he supported his decision. The Speaker also said the talks could continue if Democrats took tax hikes off the table.

ADVERTISEMENT
“I understand the frustrations,” Boehner said. “I understand why [Cantor] did what he did. But I think those talks could continue if they’re willing to take the tax hikes off the table.”

Other members of the GOP House leadership were caught off guard by Cantor’s news. 

House GOP Conference Vice Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) and House Republican Leadership Chairman Greg Walden (Ore.) told The Hill they did not have a heads-up. Appropriations cardinal Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said he was surprised.

Cantor has been praised by Biden and other Democrats participating in the talks as a serious negotiator. The group has been meeting for weeks on a regular basis; one sign of the close-knit nature of the talks is that very little information on their discussions has been leaked to the public. 

In an interview, Cantor on Thursday cast his decision being as a game-changer for the negotiations. 

“The purpose here is to change the dynamic and to ask the president to come in and really just decide, because we don’t support tax hikes, we don’t have the votes on the floor to support any kinds of tax hikes,” Cantor explained.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) generally agreed with his GOP counterpart’s decision to “kick it up to the next level.”

“I think that’s probably accurate, that time is getting short, so I think this is more procedure than it is substance; Cantor was participating constructively,” Hoyer said in an interview.

Erik Wasson contributed.