Debt Ceiling Negotiators’ Task: Getting Cantor to Deal

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There’s currently a lot of movement on the chess board of Washington’s debt ceiling game, and much of that action has one goal: returning the pieces back to their original positions — the king next to the queen and the pawns all in a row.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s startling proposition on Tuesday that Republicans drop all hopes to cut spending along with raising the debt ceiling and satisfy themselves with the political victory of three symbolic votes on deficit reduction was met with openness from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the White House. It was also met with furious rejection from House Republicans. Why? Because McConnell’s proposal, along with almost every other move made outside of the GOP freshman class and the House majority leader’s office is all about getting Eric Cantor to compromise.

There is a historic – if more modest than what Obama and Boehner were pulling for – deficit reduction deal on the table. Republicans could walk away from this claiming they cut nearly $2 trillion from the deficit. The sticking point is revenue increases. There’s even a Grover Norquist-endorsed solution to that problem: offset the new revenues with an Alternative Minimum Tax fix. But Cantor is holding his ground unless the package is completely revenue neutral. If he doesn’t get on board, he risks splitting the GOP conference – not to mention potentially bringing down the economy. If it’s insanity, as David Brooks wrote last week, to walk away from the grand bargain — this was the best deal Republicans were going to get in their lifetimes — it’s arguably suicidal to walk away from the smaller package and let the debt ceiling lapse.

Do Reid or Obama really like Mitch McConnell’s offer? No, but sources tell me their openness to it signifies their feeling that even McConnell’s crazy contingency plan is more sane than the intransigence they are seeing from Cantor’s camp inside the negotiating room. Democrats argue they have given significant skin to this deal and it’s unrealistic for Cantor to expect to get a deal without conceding anything. Cantor’s quandary is how to compromise without becoming compromised himself in the eyes of purist freshmen lawmakers. And McConnell’s timing in floating a contingency plan trial balloon implicitly calls into question Cantor’s ability to reach an agreement with Democrats.

Both McConnell’s plan and the White House’s continued push for a grand bargain can be interpreted as closing ranks behind Boehner. If Dems were to accede to Cantor’s demands, it would further weaken Boehner’s speakership — allowing Cantor to succeed where he failed. That’s why all sides are pushing Cantor to give in. With the economy — and possibly the GOP’s prospects at the polls — in his hands, everyone is focused on what Cantor will do.

Update from Cantor’s office:
Eric has approached the debt limit negotiations under Speaker Boehner’s directive to find spending cuts commensurate with the amount of the debt ceiling increase.  Since President Obama has said he would veto any increase that doesn’t carry through the election, that amount is at least $2.4 trillion.  Eric simply is representing the views and principles of the House Republicans that he was elected to lead.”

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