In it, but not of it. TPM DC

Cantor's Last Stand? GOP Leader Will Own Debt Talks Gridlock

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If he successfully moves talks away from tax cuts and the two sides reach a deal to slash spending significantly, he'll be a hero in the eyes of many House Republicans. But this high-profile, high stakes maneuvering has a major downside. If Cantor overplays his hand and the U.S. fails to meet its deadline for raising the debt limit, stocks could take a tumble, the economy could slide and the American people would have a prime culprit right before them to blame.

Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) spent Thursday painting Cantor as the face of gridlock in Washington and the fall guy if debt talks deteriorate, the U.S. defaults and Social Security checks stop going out to seniors.

But if he's stressed out in any way, Cantor's not showing it. After locking horns with President Obama Wednesday night, he returned to the Capitol and relayed the story of Obama storming out of the meeting unruffled.

"He said to me, 'Eric, don't call my bluff. I'm going to the American people with this,'" Cantor said.

"I was somewhat taken aback," he told reporters before flashing a quick smile.

Unlike previous House GOP leaders such as Rep. Tom "The Hammer" DeLay (R-TX), Cantor is harder to demonize. He's relatively young, press-friendly and articulate.

"He's not a very likely villain," said Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who worked closely with Cantor when both had a seat at the House GOP leadership table nearly seven years ago. "He's a policy person and was very serious about getting into the meat of the issues -- sought and won a seat on the Ways and Means Committee -- a very substantive panel."

Cantor is simply representing his conference, which is dead-set against any tax increases, Portman told TPM.

"On the tax issue, he's just representing his conference...it's his job to get the votes," he said. "There are 87 GOP freshmen who will not support any wavering on this."

But critics point to a sanctimonious streak and bald ambition to rise to the top spot in the House that can undercut Speaker John Boehner's (R-OH) standing.

"He's just always in it to win it -- not necessarily for the country but for himself," one Republican lamented. "Sometimes it's just too in your face -- even for Washington."

After aggravating the President on Wednesday, Cantor toned it way down during Thursday's meeting, in fact, he didn't say a word, participants report.

Earlier in the day, Cantor made headlines again when Boehner stepped forward at a press briefing to answer a question but quickly realized it was intended for Cantor and was forced to step back into line while Cantor responded -- for a number of minutes. The press corp tittered at the awkward but telling moment.

Later, Boehner sidled up to him and gave him a friendly hug in front of the cameras, insisting that they are completely unified in heated debt talks with the White House.

"The Speaker and I have consistently been on the same page," Cantor said at the press conference.

Follow this reporter on Twitter: @susancrabtree

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