House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has pulled out of the debt limit talks with Joe Biden, saying that both sides have reached an impasse, mostly over taxes, that only the President and Speaker John Boehner can resolve.

Mr. Cantor, in an interview after a negotiating session he described as bitterly contentious, said he would not be attending Thursday’s scheduled meeting of the bipartisan deficit-reduction leadership group because he believed it was time for the negotiations to move to a higher level.

“We’ve reached the point where the dynamic needs to change,” Mr. Cantor said. “It is up to the president to come in and talk to the speaker. We’ve reached the end of this phase. Now is the time for these talks to go into abeyance.”

Cantor doesn’t want to pull the trigger on taxes. He’d rather Boehner do it. That positions him well for next year’s battle to become Speaker Cantor. Is that all there is to this?

If you read deeper, you see that Cantor claims agreement on $2 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years. He claims that the only impasse here is whether or not some tax issues get included in the deal. He claims that there are cuts to mandatory and discretionary spending, including health programs.

So it’s not that there’s no framework for a deal, it’s not that talks have been abandoned. It’s that personal advancement has become part of the deal. Cantor is setting up Boehner to take the fall for any tax solutions. He wants Boehner to have that responsibility, not him. That way, the tea party anger can flow to Boehner. “Eric Cantor just threw Boehner under the bus,” one Democratic official said.

But let’s get back to one. Even if Boehner somehow agrees to tax solutions, they are expected to be exceedingly minor – maybe some energy tax expenditures will go away. You still have this framework of $2 trillion in budget cuts, some of them hitting in the near term, at a time of a jobs crisis. That’s nothing to celebrate. The hope here is that Boehner and Cantor can keep fighting and resisting any deal, resulting in gridlock. Remember, doing nothing really is the optimal policy over the long term. As for the debt limit itself, the hope would be that Wall Street puts the thumbscrews to Republicans to get it passed with minimal harm. There is also the threat that the Republican leadership backed themselves into a corner and now cannot increase the debt limit without a deal that they cannot sign onto. That’s a recipe for a needless default.

David Dayen

David Dayen