Whatever damage Democrats might incur through the government shutdown, they have found some satisfaction in trying to highlight the gap between House Republican leaders and their more tea party-oriented members. Former White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton worked that theme in an appearance on CNN’s Crossfire.
In response to the charge that President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats are unwilling to negotiate, Burton shot back, "We have negotiated a deal that Republicans wanted, that Eric Cantor said would be a win."
We wanted to verify the claim that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., had signed off on a deal. But before we do that, it’s helpful to put Burton’s comment into the context of the rapid fire exchange on Crossfire. In that conversation, the issues of re-opening the government and avoiding a default on the national debt became intertwined.
At one point, Burton said "If there is a bipartisan majority that will pass this that we can use to avert this shutdown, why the theatrics? Why flirt with disaster?"
A few moments later, co-host S.E. Cupp pressed Burton on the debt ceiling.
Cupp: "I'm saying, attach the debt ceiling to spending cuts, deficit reduction ...And you haven't answered yet why the president won't negotiate if he thinks defaulting is so catastrophic."
Burton: "Well, two things, ... No. 1, he has negotiated. We have negotiated a deal that Republicans wanted, that Eric Cantor said would be a win."
Burton used the deal on a stop-gap spending bill to counter the claim that Obama is unwilling to negotiate. But the question was aimed at negotiations on the debt ceiling.
The temporary spending deal Burton had in mind broke down when House Republican leaders failed to bring their fellow Republicans along. However, keeping the government open technically is a separate issue from raising the debt limit.
Cantor and the budget deal
We contacted Burton’s office for details on Cantor’s role leading up to the shutdown. They sent us to a memo Cantor wrote to his fellow Republicans in early September. In it, he told them to expect a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government open.
Such a resolution, Cantor wrote, would be "at sequester levels" and "contain $64 billion in less spending compared to the current funding levels President Obama signed into law a mere five months ago."
If Obama signed off on that, Cantor continued, Obama "would be endorsing a level of spending that wipes away all the increases he and congressional Democrats made while they were in charge and returns us to a pre-2008 level of discretionary spending."
Cantor ended his memo on an upbeat note: "Upon return to Washington, if we stay focused on our solutions and how they can benefit all Americans dealing with their everyday challenges, I am convinced we will achieve more significant policy victories in the months ahead." That leaves little doubt that Cantor saw a short-term continuing resolution in a positive light. It wouldn’t necessarily be the resounding victory that Burton suggested but it was something Cantor could say was a net gain for the GOP.
We asked Cantor’s office if Burton had captured the gist of Cantor’s memo. "We were simply laying out our legislative agenda at the time," Cantor’s press secretary Megan Whittemore said.
"We believe maintaining current spending levels is a good thing, which is why that was included in every one of our CR solutions which passed the House," Whittemore said. "We also believe we must tackle the challenges of ObamaCare, which was also addressed in all of our CR solutions."
While Cantor’s memo does lay out a strategy to defund and delay Obamacare, he kept that separate from the section on a continuing resolution. That’s consistent with what we now know was the House Republican leadership plan.
Several news articles described a deal struck between House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., back in July. On national television, Boehner did not rebut that there was an understanding that there would be a cut, in the range of $70 billion, in exchange for a clean continuing resolution, one that said nothing about defunding the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
Three days after the memo appeared on the Web, the National Review reported that Cantor planned to bring two measures to the floor. One would be the continuing resolution and the other would amend that resolution to defund Obamacare. Both items would go to the Senate separately with the expectation that the Senate would pass the spending resolution and kill the amendment. The president would then be able to sign a clean bill.
But a week after that, Cantor’s plan crumbled under pressure from members of his party who were unwilling to compromise. About two dozen House Republicans refused to sign on to any measure that funded Obamacare. Ultimately, they prevailed and the House Republican leadership efforts to avert a shutdown failed.
One final note: Burton talked about a budget deal in the middle of a conversation that dealt mainly with the debate over raising the debt ceiling. While the two issues are now linked, there is no evidence that there was ever a deal between Republicans and Democrats on allowing the government’s borrowing limit to rise.
On the contrary, even as House Republican leaders were trying to sell their troops on a strategy to keep the government open, they said they wanted a showdown on the debt ceiling. Burton’s comment addressed only half of the current impasse.
Burton said Democrats had struck a deal to avert a shutdown with Republicans that Cantor considered a win, implying that Republicans were going back on previous agreements.
Cantor’s legislative agenda memo from early September is in line with that and described the benefits of that approach. Cantor also attempted to keep that deal alive through a legislative maneuver until tea party members refused to go along.
As for whether Cantor called the plan "a win," he didn’t use that word. But he did include it on a list that he said would result in "significant policy victories."
Burton’s statement does not apply to the standoff over the debt ceiling, though, which was what he was asked about. On the other hand, it did speak to the broader challenge of negotiating successfully if the parties don’t speak for the block of votes they need to deliver.
We rate the claim Mostly True.