Relationship between Cantor, Boehner tested in deficit-ceiling debate

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) does not wield the Speaker’s gavel, but he appears to hold a veto pen in the Republican caucus.

At a White House summit last Thursday, the GOP leader objected to the outlines of a grand bargain Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had been negotiating with President Obama, saying neither he nor House Republicans would support a proposal that included more than $1 trillion in tax increases.

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Within 48 hours, Boehner abandoned his secretive push for a $4 trillion deficit-reduction plan, leaving the impression that although he wanted to strike “the big deal,” his second-in-command wouldn’t let him.

The about-face underscored the complicated relationship between the two men, who share a political philosophy but differ in personal style.

Boehner, 61, is a back-slapping dealmaker who has served in the House more than a decade longer than Cantor, 48, a leader of the conservative “Young Guns,” who in 2006 backed Boehner’s opponent in a GOP leadership race.

Their relationship has been scrutinized for months, but never more so than now, as debate intensifies over raising the federal debt limit. With House Republicans leery or opposed outright to authorizing more federal borrowing, Boehner and Cantor have tossed back and forth the task of negotiating a deal with Democrats.

After Boehner struck a deal with Obama to avert a government shutdown this spring, he appointed Cantor to represent the GOP conference in debt talks led by Vice President Biden. Cantor attended more than 10 sessions before abruptly withdrawing over what he said was Democrats’ insistence on tax increases.

Cantor’s exit from those negotiations came soon after the majority leader learned from Biden that Boehner was scheduled to visit the White House, according to The Washington Post. 

The Speaker pointedly declined to endorse Cantor’s decision to bolt the talks, saying only that he understood his reasons. Boehner then initiated his own negotiations with Obama, which ended shortly after Cantor said he would back a more modest debt-reduction deal based on a “blueprint” that emerged from the Biden talks.

At a second White House meeting on Sunday, Cantor did most of the talking for Republicans, along with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), while Boehner said little, according to a source familiar with the discussions.

Cantor has downplayed any division with Boehner.

“The Speaker and I are on the same page,” he told reporters Monday, echoing comments he made to The Hill late last week. “We do not believe you should be raising taxes on the American people, especially in this economy. … We are in the same place, and what the Speaker tried to do was to address the big issues facing this country, which are the entitlement issues.”

Asked by The Hill if he could envision not supporting a debt deal Boehner struck with Obama, Cantor smiled and said no.

“I think we are on the same page,” he went on. “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.

“The Speaker and I are united in saying we don’t want to raise taxes on the American people.”

Boehner’s office has denied that there is any daylight between the two men, and for his part, the Speaker on Monday said tax hikes “were never on the table” in his negotiations with the president.

“There were no tax increases ever on the table,” he said. “There was never any agreement to allow tax rates to go up.”

A source close to Boehner denied any friction between the Speaker and Cantor, and pointed out that Cantor did most of the speaking at the recent White House meetings because Boehner had already been talking with the president privately. Boehner and Cantor are working as a team, this person said.

The official told The Hill that the two leaders were acutely aware that they would “sink or swim” together regarding the outcome of the debt.

Yet there are differences between how the two leaders operate. Cantor has been forthcoming with occasional details of the debt discussions, describing his role in the meetings and on Monday revealing numerical breakdowns both in Obama’s proposal and in the talks led by Biden. The majority leader, who served as House GOP whip when the party was in the minority, also has been more engaged with fellow members during recent floor votes.

Boehner has been more tight-lipped; the Speaker has been reluctant to share details of the negotiations even in closed-door conference meetings, and his spokesman would not confirm figures cited by Cantor on Monday. When Cantor was asked how rank-and-file Republicans reacted to Boehner’s efforts to strike a far-reaching deal last week, he said, “There wasn’t a lot of information that was forthcoming.”

The relationship between Boehner’s and Cantor’s aides also also changed, and at times been rocky, since Barry Jackson replaced Paula Nowakowski as Boehner’s chief of staff after Nowakowski's death in January 2010.

Democratic operatives have tried to exploit signals of a Boehner-Cantor divide, just as Republicans did with former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and former Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who once were rivals. James Manley, a former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said in a Twitter post Monday that “if Cantor takes the lead for [Republicans], no deal will be reached. He couldn’t legislate his way out of a paper bag. Not ready for prime time.”

Without mentioning Cantor, Obama on Monday singled Boehner out for praise.

“I think Speaker Boehner has been very sincere about trying to do something big,” the president said. “I think he’d like to do something big. His politics within his caucus are very difficult.”

Obama called Boehner “a good man who wants to do right by the country,” but he declined to say whether he thought the Speaker could deliver the votes on any deal he agreed to.

While reports of Boehner-Cantor tensions feed the palace intrigue in the Capitol, they also could strengthen the GOP’s hand in negotiations with Democrats, much as Tea Party consternation helped Republicans win deeper cuts in the fiscal 2011 spending deal.

And aides say Boehner has kept Cantor in the loop regarding the Speaker's talks with Obama. On Wednesday evening, a day before Cantor spoke up against the possible grand bargain at the White House, he was spotted holding a lengthy one-on-one chat with Boehner on the House floor.

Bob Cusack and Molly K. Hooper contributed.