As of this morning, it appears the weeks of bipartisan debt-reduction talks are now dead. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the leading House Republican in the talks, quit. Soon after, Minority Whip Jon Kyl, the leading Senate Republican negotiator, walked away, too.
But that’s just Phase One coming to an end. Phase Two will feature President Obama sitting down with House Speaker John Boehner’s court — and Boehner’s not especially happy about it.
Why would he be? The Biden-led talks had reached the point where difficult — and unpopular — decisions had to be made. Cantor, who doesn’t exactly put the “leader” in “House Majority Leader,” didn’t see much of an upside to agreeing to a deal that’s likely to prove controversial, even among Republicans.
So, Cantor’s passing the buck, probably because he realizes the final deal will need to bring in some additional revenue. As one senior Democratic aide told Brian Beutler, “Eric Cantor just threw Boehner under the bus. This move is an admission that there will be a need for revenues in the final deal to cut our deficit, and Cantor doesn’t want to be the one to make that deal.”
It’s gone largely overlooked in recent weeks, but Republican leaders know there has to be a deal, but don’t necessarily want to be the one to strike the deal. National Journal reported recently that Boehner put Cantor in the room to give the Speaker some cover: “The debt deal must have Cantor’s fingerprints on it.”
But Cantor doesn’t want his fingerprints on a controversial measure, especially when he has the option of making Boehner do the hard work. Ezra Klein had a good post on this today.
Cantor seemed the most obvious choice [to cut a deal] because he has the most credibility with the Tea Party. But that very credibility with the Tea Party is why Cantor won’t cut the deal. They support him because he’s the guy who won’t cut the deal. He can’t sign off on tax increases without losing his power base. But if he’s able to throw it back to Boehner, and Boehner cuts the deal, that’s all good for Cantor: Boehner becomes weaker and Cantor becomes stronger. Which is why Boehner will also have trouble making this deal. It’ll mean he made the concessions that Cantor, the true conservative, didn’t. That’s not how he holds onto the gavel in this Republican Party.
If you had to write a plausible scenario for how America defaults on its debt, or at least seriously spooks the market, this is how it would start. After insisting on using the debt limit as leverage for a budget deal, the Republican leadership finds they can’t actually strike a deficit-reduction deal, but nor can they go back on their promise to vote against any increase in the debt limit that isn’t accompanied by a deficit-reduction deal. Cantor is putting personal power before country here, and in a very dangerous way.
Daniel Gross added, “And now John Boehner must decide if he wants to govern or be Speaker. In this climate, with his party, he can’t do both.”
Keep in mind, there’s no turning back. Boehner was inclined to do the right thing months ago, before he realized that his right-wing party wouldn’t tolerate it. Now he has to strike a deal that can pass, or his party will crash the economy on purpose. Those are the options.
No one ever said leading a radicalized, pathological political party in a time of multiple crises was easy.