By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - John Boehner, the top Republican, is being upstaged in the battle to raise the debt limit by his younger and more partisan deputy in Congress, Eric Cantor, who is widely seen as wanting his job.
Cantor established himself as a lead negotiator in White House talks this week, willing to tangle with President Barack Obama while Boehner sits relatively mum.
Last week, Cantor helped nix a potential deal between Boehner and Obama that Democrats said was expected to feature $3 trillion in spending cuts and perhaps up to nearly $1 trillion in new tax revenue.
"Boehner is hearing Cantor's footsteps," said a veteran Republican lawmaker, asking not to be identified by name. "And those footsteps are getting louder."
Cantor seems more attuned than Boehner to overall wishes of Republicans in the House of Representatives, many of whom are aligned with the anti-tax Tea Party movement that considers "compromise" a dirty word.
A House Republican said: "It'd be naive not to think that Cantor would like, some day, to become House speaker. A lot depends on how all this works out. It's a defining debate."
House Speaker Boehner, 61, and House Majority Leader Cantor, 48, deny any friction and say they have a strong relationship built largely on mutual opposition to tax hikes.
Obama and Congress are facing an August 2 deadline to increase the U.S. debt limit to avert an unprecedented U.S. debt default that would upset markets worldwide. Boehner and Cantor both want to push Obama and the Democrats to agree to trillion of dollars in spending cuts in return for an increase in the fast-approaching $14.3 trillion U.S. debt limit.
At a news conference on Thursday, Boehner put his arm around Cantor and rejected talk of a rift between them, as well as Democratic charges that his deputy has undermined efforts to get a deal.
"We have been in this fight together," Boehner said. "Any suggestion that the role that Eric has played is anything less than helpful is just wrong."
After some sharp exchanges with Obama at Wednesday's White House talks, Cantor didn't utter a word at Thursday night's session, Democratic aides said.
But he had plenty to say on the House floor and before TV cameras in his party's drive to cut spending and balance the budget, declaring on Friday: "We want to change the system."
There were no White House talks on Friday, but Obama urged negotiators to come up with a way forward this weekend. "We're running out of time," Obama said.
Cantor, a former attorney from Virginia, is well known in Congress for being ambitious. Democratic aides have sent media what they say is the phrase Cantor wrote in his yearbook when he graduated from a private prep school in Richmond in 1981: "I want what I want when I want it."
A former Republican leadership aide said: "There is always competition at the top. Number two wants to be number one"
"But I think it's a pretty good team, a little bit of 'good cop, bad cop.' Boehner can tell Obama, 'Hey, I want a deal. But I have to deal with Cantor.'"
Boehner and Cantor have differences, at least stylistic ones, starting with the speaker's laid-back approach and the much more aggressive style of Cantor.
Having served more than two decades in Congress, twice as long as Cantor, Boehner is a political war horse and a backslapper. The former small businessman from Ohio can stand up and fight but he's also shown an ability to cross the political aisle to find common ground.
Cantor is a leader of conservative "Young Guns" Republicans who he helped recruit. In a 2006 House leadership race, Cantor backed Boehner's opponent.
"They are two very different guys," said another Republican lawmaker. "John's a legislator. He wants to get things done. Eric is more focused on what the party should stand for and the political implications."
"Boehner has some Democratic friends," said a Capitol Hill lobbyist. "You'd be hard-pressed to name a Democrat who Cantor is friends with."
Obama has made it clear who he prefers.
"I think Speaker Boehner has been very sincere about trying to do something big," Obama said. "His politics within his (Republican House) caucus are very difficult."
House Republicans applaud the Boehner-Cantor team.
"Both have jobs to do and they are doing them," said Representative Lynn Westmoreland. "They are effective."
"I don't see a problem," said Representative Shelley Moore Capito. As for reports of tension between the two, she smiled and said, "It makes matters more theatrical."
Earlier this year, Democrats complain, Cantor pushed Boehner to seek deeper spending cuts than the speaker seemed ready to accept to avert a partial government shutdown.
Cantor also caught Boehner off guard in June when he walked out of deficit talks led by Vice President Joe Biden.
Last week, Cantor opposed the outlines of a "grand deal" between Obama and Boehner expected to include tax reform as well as changes in Medicare, Medicaid and other social programs long championed by Democrats.
Democrats charge that Cantor has been the only congressional leader who's refused to give ground and that he needs to follow the lead of others.
"This Congress is waiting for Leader Cantor to step up to the plate ... so that maybe we can come to a compromise," said Senator Charles Schumer.
(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Eric Beech)