Debt talks shine light on prickly relationship between Obama, Cantor

The fractious negotiations over raising the debt ceiling have exposed the prickly relationship between President Obama and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

On Thursday — the day after Obama and Cantor had what all sides seem to agree was a terse exchange at the White House — the Republican stressed that he had always tried to be substantive in his discussions with the president.

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“You would have to ask him what irks him so much about my policy-based discussions,” Cantor told The Hill in a short interview.

While Obama is known to have a chummy rapport with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the president does not seem to have the same kind of working relationship with Cantor.

The interactions between Cantor and Obama have been closely watched ever since Boehner decided last weekend to abandon a $4 trillion deficit-reduction package. Since Boehner’s announcement, Cantor has taken a more prominent role in the debt-ceiling negotiations and reportedly asserted his voice in closed-door meetings with the president.

In an interview Thursday, Obama said he was more than willing to work with Cantor on a deficit-reduction package.

“I am willing to work with everybody, including Eric Cantor, to solve problems,” Obama told with KYW of Philadelphia. “My relationship with all the leaders has been cordial, it has been professional.”

But even as the president stressed his openness to working with the majority leader, he said Republicans needed get to serious about reaching a deal.

“I think at a certain point the American people run out of patience if they think people are playing games and [are] not serious in terms of solving problems,” Obama said.

Cantor’s emergence as a leader in the talks seems to have riled the president, who reportedly snapped at the No. 2 Republican on two different occasions this week.

One of the incidents occurred during Wednesday’s session of the debt-ceiling talks. Cantor claimed Obama stormed out of the White House meeting after daring him to call his bluff on rejecting a short-term debt-ceiling increase. Democrats said Obama simply ended a discussion in which Cantor kept interrupting him.

Another sharp exchange reportedly happened during Tuesday’s negotiating session.

According to media reports, Cantor challenged Obama to show him the outline of his “grand bargain” for $4 trillion in deficit savings on paper.

“Frankly, your Speaker has it,” Obama shot back. “Am I dealing with him, or am I dealing with you?”

The tension has fueled doubts about whether policymakers can craft a debt deal that could pass the GOP-controlled House, where many freshman members have campaigned against raising the debt ceiling by the Aug. 2 deadline. Cantor has warned repeatedly that it will be difficult to pass a debt-ceiling bill in the House.

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The strained history between Obama and Cantor, separated in age by two years, goes back to at least 2009, after Obama was inaugurated and Cantor became the minority whip in a House then controlled by Democrats.

During a discussion about the stimulus package that year, Obama told Cantor that elections have consequences.

"I won,” the president said.

Obama also called out Cantor at other times early in his presidency.

“I’m going to keep on talking to Eric Cantor,” he once said. “Some day, sooner or later, he’s going to say, ‘Boy, Obama had a good idea.’”

Current and former Cantor staffers, perhaps not surprisingly, say they believe the president has more issues with the majority leader than vice versa.

Rob Collins, a former top Cantor aide who left last year, described the relationship as more competitive than strained. But he added that those close to the majority leader did think White House officials often singled out Cantor for criticism.

“We would always think, Eric’s not the most hard-edged guy in the room,” Collins told The Hill.

But Cantor and his team have not been afraid to throw elbows at the president. On Thursday, the majority leader’s office released a statement noting that the president had told Cantor not to call his bluff at the Wednesday meeting.

“Even the most amateur poker players know ... you don’t tell the other players at the table you’re bluffing,” the office stated in the release.

But even with all the jabs, both Cantor and the White House have committed to continue working together to reach a deficit deal that would allow the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling to be raised, even though steep differences still remain on such issues as tax revenue.

“The president believes that we have to reach a deal with the leaders of Congress of both parties and everyone has to participate and be engaged in that process,” Obama press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday.

And it was not all that long ago that Cantor and Vice President Biden were singing each other’s praises, as they were meeting frequently in the hopes of crafting a deficit deal.

Those talks also hit a roadblock over taxes, but Cantor did compliment the way Biden handled the meetings, and the vice president termed the majority leader smart, straightforward and sincere.

“I’m certainly hopeful,” Cantor said Thursday. “I’ve said so before — all of us want to avoid [extending the talks] past Aug. 2.”