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Roll Call

Cantor Seeks to Deliver

Majority Leader Insists His Debt Talks Are Key

Tom Williams/Roll Call

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is determined his involvement in bipartisan debt limit talks won't be for naught.

Despite public doubts expressed by none other than the Speaker that the group will not be able to meet the Aug. 2 deadline for raising the debt ceiling, the Virginia Republican said Thursday in an interview with Roll Call that he is playing an important role in laying the groundwork for a final deal.

Cantor has a lot at stake in the negotiations, given his role as House Republicans' conservative standard-bearer in talks led by Vice President Joseph Biden. He maintained that the group has engaged in serious discussions, which have already pinpointed "well over $1 trillion" in cuts.

"We've been very substantive in those discussions, trying to keep the politics out of it, because I think all of us understand the philosophical perspective we bring to the table," Cantor said. "I think they have been productive, and there's a lot of information that's being shared and a lot of potential for progress."

The six-term lawmaker also continues to insist cutting Medicare remains a part of the discussion, despite calls from Senate Democrats who say reforming the entitlement program should not be a condition for raising the debt ceiling.

Cutting Medicare isn't the only controversial decision under discussion. Cantor said Medicaid, non-health care mandatory programs, discretionary spending and other reforms must all be on the table.

"None of it's easy when you're talking about reducing spending and changing the trajectory of a mandatory program or getting rid of it," Cantor said, adding that he believes there is a way forward by taking apart the federal budget piece by piece.

Still, there is widespread acknowledgment that President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will craft the ultimate agreement. Boehner last week cast doubt on the Biden group's ability to come to an agreement within the month, saying the slow pace of the talks threatened to create brinkmanship if they did not soon come to a resolution. Boehner also said he was ready to begin engaging directly with the White House, separate from the Biden negotiations.

Cantor dismissed the notion that those talks would undercut him and said he supports higher-level discussions.

"We hopefully will have the will to go ahead and force some consensus that's got to happen, but the thinking always was the Speaker and the president would have a discussion to sort of bring it all together," Cantor said.

Boehner echoed Cantor's sentiments Friday, telling reporters he wants the talks to continue and that the Majority Leader has done "good work" as the House Republican's only representative at the table.

In part, having Cantor engage with the bipartisan group instead of having the Speaker go it alone might be an important strategy for House Republican leaders to keep their rank and file on board with the final product. The Conference registered its displeasure earlier this year when top staff to Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reached a deal on the continuing resolution to fund the government. That agreement to cut $38.5 billion was met with broad criticism from conservatives in the House who felt it did not sufficiently cut spending and was crafted without their input. The House had passed a bill that cut $60 billion.

"We've been pretty deliberate putting attention and focus on it so I can go to the Speaker and say, 'Look, here's where we are.' And we'll be able, I believe, to get to this point," Cantor said. "And if the administration and the vice president give a signal that they're willing to continue to talk along those lines, I can see a way that when the Speaker goes and talks to the president, these kinds of things will be on the table."

That teamwork comes five months into the GOP's control of the House under a new roster of leaders who are still finding their way in their new roles. Cantor, long viewed as the attack dog among the leaders, acknowledged House Republicans' growing pains in their effort to change the culture of the chamber.

"We're going to have an open process. We have open rules in the appropriations for the first time since 2007 ... and so a lot of this is taken getting used to," Cantor said, noting that he's gotten good feedback, even from Democrats, that there is a previously missing forum to air opinions on major legislation.

Cantor was a major architect of overhauling the chamber's schedule to include more regular district work periods and in instituting strict time constraints for votes to avoid interruptions of committee business.

There also have been hiccups with manning the House floor, including when House Republicans lost a major political vote on renewing the USA PATRIOT Act and when they decided to pull legislation that would overhaul unemployment insurance because Members were politically sensitive to taking a tough vote after having supported controversial changes to Medicare.

House Republicans have also struggled to gain traction in their public relations campaign on job creation. Over the past several months, they've made several false starts on introducing different jobs initiatives, including Cantor's own "cut and grow" strategy and the more recent unveiling of a jobs package.

Cantor defended those efforts and said GOP lawmakers have been making a consistent case on jobs. However, he acknowledged they haven't been able to capture the media's attention.

"We talk about it every day," Cantor said. "You cover the back and forth of budget fights, CR fights, debt limit fights. Most people are like, 'Good lord, get this economy straight. Grow this economy.' They are looking for optimism."

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