Democratic leaders: We don't know who's running GOP debt talks

House Democratic leaders say they’re no longer certain who’s negotiating a debt deal on behalf of the GOP, a message they’re pushing to posit a growing rift between Republican leaders.

The Democrats on Tuesday repeatedly blamed the debt-ceiling impasse on a split between House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). They say it would be tough to strike a bipartisan deal if Republicans can’t reach some kind of internal agreement.

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“I have to assume that isn’t really about Democrats versus Republicans or the House versus the Senate; this is about John Boehner versus Eric Cantor,” Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told radio host Bill Press on Tuesday. “This is about an internal war in the Republican Caucus.”

Boehner over the weekend abandoned his push for a sweeping $4 trillion deficit-reduction plan after briefly backing it. The House Speaker’s reversal came after Cantor expressed concerns about a deal of that size and advocated for a smaller deficit-reduction package without any net tax increases.

Last month, in the midst of the debt talks being led by Vice President Biden, Cantor left the negotiations when Democrats insisted that revenue increases be included in the package. The move was viewed by many political observers as Cantor’s way of shifting the pressure of reaching an agreement back to Boehner.

Democrats have pounced on the perception that Boehner and Cantor aren’t on the same page. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said Boehner was undermined by his own troops.

“I don’t want to get the Speaker in trouble, but clearly, he was willing to make some tough decisions, some compromises, which is what’s going to be necessary in order to really get the deficit and debt under control and get the economy moving again,” Van Hollen said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Tuesday. 

“He clearly had his legs cut out from under him by members of his own caucus,” he said.

Members of the House Democratic leadership piled on.

“It sounds more and more like the House Republicans have two different negotiators going to these meetings at the White House,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said Tuesday at a press briefing in the Capitol.

Rep. John Larson (Conn.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus, characterized Republican tactics as “high theater but little action.”

“Certainly, John Boehner can’t decipher where his caucus is, and I don’t know who can at this point,” Larson said. “They’re being pulled by their presidential candidates in one direction and by their internal politics in another direction, so it’s hard for us to forecast what will happen.”

The office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) shot out an email to reporters Tuesday morning with the subject line, “Who’s the Boss?”  referencing the House Republicans.

Democrats’ attempt at divide-and-conquer could backfire and galvanize Republicans to close ranks around their leaders.

GOP members exiting a conference meeting on Tuesday said they received reassurances that Boehner and Cantor are on the same page in the talks over raising the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.

Complicating the debate, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) introduced legislation Tuesday empowering President Obama to hike the debt ceiling unilaterally in three increments over the next 17 months.

McConnell, who’s been quiet throughout the debt-ceiling talks, characterized the bill as a “last choice option” to prevent a government default if negotiators fail to reach a deal to raise the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt limit.

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Early signals from Democrats, however, indicate the McConnell bill doesn’t have much chance of success.

“It was incomprehensible,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) told The Hill on Tuesday.

Welch is urging a fallback option of his own: a clean debt-limit hike to stave off default and buy negotiators more time to work out a deficit-reduction compromise.

“We’re not making progress, we’re pedaling backwards,” Welch said of the talks. “Plan B has to be paying our bills.”

This story was originally posted at 12:47 and has been updated.