WASHINGTON — Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., has emerged as the most visible, if not the most pivotal, player in the deadlocked debt reduction talks — and he also may be the one with the most to lose.
As the majority leader and second in command among Republicans in the House of Representatives, Cantor is widely regarded as the leader of a new generation of congressional conservatives.
They insist on no new taxes, think government is too bloated and intrusive and aren't shy about sharply criticizing President Barack Obama. Should they get most of their way in the talks, government's role in many aspects of American life could be changed dramatically.
They're counting on Cantor to articulate those views, and he's done so regularly in his intense, fact-packed style, often overshadowing — some say muscling out of the picture — House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
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But if the talks collapse or the negotiators wind up with a deal not to conservatives' liking, does Cantor pay the biggest price? Could the 48-year-old Richmond native's ambitions to be speaker suffer? And if so, what might that do to conservative unity — and to its clout — in the House?
"This could blow up, and with it his ambitions," said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. And Sabato, who's known Cantor for 20 years, says Cantor is full of "pure ambition. He wants to be speaker."
Democrats are trying to blame Cantor for the stalled talks. Wednesday, Obama ended the two-hour discussion after Cantor pressed for a short-term debt increase. "Enough is enough," the president said, and left.
Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., took the unusual step of blasting Cantor on the Senate floor, saying he doesn't belong in the talks at all because he's so obstructive to deal-making.
Conservatives are watching closely. "If the talks result in what's perceived as a cave-in," then Cantor's political future is at risk, said Michael Franc, the vice president for government studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
But, noted Franc, who in the 1990s worked for House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, "if it collapses because he sticks to core principles, his reputation is enhanced among the rank and file."
Republicans won't talk openly about Cantor's future or his relationship with the speaker.
Asked about the political risks, Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring said: "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. ... Eric simply is representing the views and principles of the House Republicans that he was elected to lead."
So far, analysts and colleagues say Cantor is doing the job he's supposed to do.
"It's not uncommon for the majority leader to be in closer cooperation with where the rank and file is," said Daniel Palazzolo, a professor of political science at the University of Richmond, "and Eric Cantor is a true believer on the tax issue."
As the debt talks unfold, the differences between Cantor and Boehner become more pronounced.
Boehner, 61, is from a political generation that's different from Cantor's. "You could imagine Boehner becoming a party leader in the '50s or '70s," said Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.
"He came up with the old kind of leadership, where you engaged in dialogue with the other side," said Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.
Cantor, he said, is "more new school, more impatient and more ideologically driven."
Boehner, characteristically, has been developing a personal relationship with Obama, playing golf last month and talking several times privately in recent weeks. Boehner has a history as a compromiser; in 2001-02, he played a key role in crafting major education legislation with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Cantor's relationship with Obama has followed a different path recently. Cantor on Tuesday provided details at the White House negotiating session about savings identified in the May-June bipartisan budget talks.
Then Cantor asked Obama for details of the president's plan. Obama reportedly said he'd shared his plan with Boehner and that Cantor should let Boehner talk. Boehner, though, was unaware of such details. White House spokesman Jay Carney won't discuss what he calls "stuff that's happening in the negotiating room."
Boehner's latest climb up the leadership ladder, which began in 2006, wasn't an ideological triumph. It began after top House officials were embroiled in a lobbying scandal and Boehner's collegial, friendly approach was warmly received.
Cantor, on the other hand, is a conservative hero, representing a largely suburban Richmond district so conservative that "you'll hear on some of the local talk shows that he's not conservative enough," said the University of Richmond's Palazzolo.
Cantor earned loyalty from Congress' newer members because of the GOP's "Young Guns" program, which he co-founded during the 2007-08 election cycle to identify, recruit and mobilize "a new generation of conservative leaders." It helped elect 87 Republican freshmen, and handed control of the House to the GOP for the first time in four years.
Spokesmen for Cantor and Boehner pointed out that the two GOP leaders get along and that their voting records are nearly identical.
"The speaker and I are on the same page," Cantor said.
"I know you all love to write the soap opera here. And it is just that," he added. "It is something that I think belittles the real question here, and that is the difference between the sides and ... the fact that Barack Obama wants to raise taxes and Republicans don't."
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel echoed that view: "The speaker and the majority leader work together closely and well," he said. "Their talents complement each other, and help our overall House Republican team."
When this spring's bipartisan debt talks, chaired by Vice President Joe Biden, were announced, Boehner made Cantor the sole House GOP representative. Biden found him surprisingly easy to deal with — until June 23, when Cantor quit the talks, saying Democrats wouldn't back off their insistence on tax increases.
Boehner and Obama then spoke privately, and there was talk that they could be nearing a deal. But pressure from the right grew, and Boehner announced Saturday night that he couldn't accept the kind of $4 trillion agreement Obama was seeking: It would mean higher taxes, and House Republicans wouldn't buy it.
Was Cantor pushing Boehner?
"It's hard to judge. You have to be in the room," Sabato said. "Boehner is still the most important figure; he's the speaker, and the speaker has power the majority leader doesn't have."
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