Two Republican lawmakers' decision to quit deficit-reduction talks as a critical deadline approaches doesn't necessarily mean the negotiations have collapsed in disarray. It may signal the time has come for President Barack Obama to step in.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor quit the bipartisan talks between lawmakers and Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday, saying they were at an impasse over taxes.
The Republican-dominated House simply won't support any tax increases, Cantor said. But Democrats insist that additional revenues be found by closing tax breaks, alongside the trillions of dollars in spending cuts. The negotiators are seeking a deal that can get lawmakers in both parties to vote to raise the limit on the government's borrowing by Aug. 2 to avoid a first-ever default on U.S. debt.
The other Republican in the negotiations, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, also exited the talks. The departure of Kyl and Cantor, R-Va., means the most difficult decisions have been kicked upstairs to Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
It had long been assumed that the Biden group would set the stage for more decisive talks involving Obama and Boehner. As a result, Cantor's move was interpreted as trying to jump-start the talks rather than blow them up - a view shared by Cantor himself.
"The purpose here is to alter the dynamic," Cantor said.
In fact, Cantor's withdrawal came after Boehner had already made a trek to the White House - in a secret meeting Wednesday night that followed up on a golf outing over the weekend. For his part, Cantor didn't inform Boehner of his decision to leave the talks until Thursday, shortly before the news broke, said a GOP official familiar with the situation. The official required anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
The White House sought to put a positive spin on developments.
"As all of us at the table said at the outset, the goal of these talks was to report our findings back to our respective leaders," Biden said in a statement. "The next phase is in the hands of those leaders, who need to determine the scope of an agreement that can tackle the problem and attract bipartisan support. For now the talks are in abeyance as we await that guidance."
For his part, Cantor said the secretive Biden-led talks had "established a blueprint" for agreement on significant cuts in spending.
One of the byproducts of Cantor's departure was to provide an opportunity for partisans on all sides to make statements at odds with the positions they may have to take to achieve a deal. Democrats insist that at least some new revenues are needed - both to soften spending cuts and to line up the Democratic votes needed to pass the measure.
"It will take Democratic votes to pass any debt-ceiling agreement," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "As a result, certain things are going to have to be true. We cannot make cuts to Medicare benefits. We have to allow for revenues like wasteful subsidies for ethanol and oil companies. And we have to do something on jobs."
"President Obama needs to decide between his goal of higher taxes or a bipartisan plan to address our deficit," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "He can't have both."
As for Democratic demands for new deficit-financed "jobs" initiatives, McConnell scoffed: "What planet are they on?"
Cantor said that plenty of progress has been made in identifying trillions of dollars in potential spending cuts to accompany legislation to raise the $14.3 trillion cap on the government's ability to borrow money.
The Obama administration says passage of the legislation by Aug. 2 is necessary to meet the government's obligations to holders of U.S. Treasurys. The alternative is a market-shaking, first-ever default on U.S. obligations.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)