WASHINGTON — They're a pair of flamboyant lawyers who are fond of cameras and adept at messaging, two No. 2s with ambitions to land, someday, on top.
So the emerging political warfare led by Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer and Republican Rep. Eric Cantor, now playing out in multimedia form over the budget impasse, can resemble a Spy vs. Spy contest over some of the most serious issues facing Congress and the nation.
For them it's not just about getting to a budget agreement, cutting spending or the deficit. In fact, neither Cantor nor Schumer is directly involved in the sensitive, secretive budget negotiations. But the snippy rhetoric is expected to intensify as the April 8 deadline — and a possible government shutdown — loom.
To these two, and arguably all of the congressional Republicans and Democrats they represent, the federal budget mess is a campaign within the long 2012 re-election campaign. And that means all the responses and "pre-sponses" the Internet, the Twitterverse, television and the old-fashioned telephone allow.
Tuesday provided an apt, daylong example. Reporters dialing in to a news conference-by-phone could hear Schumer, the media-savvy New Yorker tapped by Majority Leader Harry Reid to handle the party's messaging, giving talking points on the budget to other Democratic senators. He was clearly unaware that reporters were already on the line.
Schumer's advice was familiar: Call the House Republicans' proposed spending cuts "extreme."
"Extreme and draconian," Schumer, 60, advised. "The subtext of this is, the only way we can avoid a shutdown is for (House Speaker John) Boehner to come up with a reasonable compromise and not just listen to what the tea party wants."
The GOP's victory dancing began, from Cantor's office and beyond. Within moments, Boehner's office fired off an email with an account of the overheard conversation.
Then Cantor, 47, referred to Schumer several times during the Republican's weekly off-camera briefing.
"We have seen what the motive is behind Mr. Schumer," Cantor said. "He says every spending cut is unreasonable."
On-camera later, there was more. "I think we did find out that Chuck Schumer's intent on playing political games," the Virginia Republican said.
Other Republicans chimed in.
With a flash of smirk, Boehner twice referenced the Democrats' "marching orders."
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., another Republican leader, said he wonders who's in charge of the Senate.
"Do we have a de facto leader in Schumer, who thinks he wants to engineer a political game, as many reporters could actually hear on the call?"
And Rep. Jeb Hensarling quipped that it was "extremely revealing that Senate Democrats have instructed their members to use extreme language."
The exchange followed a similar back-and-forth last week, which included Schumer's response to a Cantor speech at Stanford University — before the Republican had delivered it, and before many reporters had even obtained a copy.
On Friday, a Twitter war broke out after Schumer said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that "some progress" had been made between Reid and Boehner in budget talks.
In one tweet, Cantor's office didn't even mention Reid.
"Sen. Schumer and the WH (White House) continue to abandon their responsibility to get our fiscal house in order by negotiating off of the status quo," tweeted CantorPress.
For his part Tuesday, Schumer wasn't backing off the talking points overheard by reporters. They're the same ones he and other Democrats have been using for weeks, a point underscored when Schumer stopped talking, the conference call officially began and the senators on the line delivered prepared statements.
First up: Sen. Barbara Boxer of California.
"We have a very straightforward message and each of us will give it in our own words. And my words are these," Boxer said. "We Senate Democrats are calling on Speaker Boehner to abandon the extreme right wing of his Republican caucus."
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