Bill Richardson gives a press conference in 2011 in Havana, while trying to retrieve jailed USAID worker Alan Gross. (ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
October 11, 2013

Bill Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico, was energy secretary from 1998 to 2001 and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1997 to 1998. His book “How to Sweet-Talk a Shark: Strategies and Stories from a Master Negotiator,” written with Kevin Bleyer, will be released Tuesday.

I’ve negotiated with some bad guys. I’ve dined with African strongmen in desert huts, persuading them to release Red Cross workers they were holding hostage. I’ve coaxed the Taliban into letting women become doctors in Afghanistan. And I’ve gone toe to toe with Saddam Hussein to free American detainees from Iraq. From North Korea to Sudan, I’ve learned that even sworn enemies can strike an agreement.

So when I look at the impasse between congressional Republicans and Democrats, I am frustrated by the name-calling and the politicization of the process. But I’m optimistic they can reach a deal.

House Republicans and President Obama are at least talking about temporarily raising the debt ceiling, but the government shutdown continues. Before negotiations go any further, we need to lower the temperature. When fights get personal, as this one certainly has, you need a new approach.

I never thought I’d say this, but Congress could take a lesson from the Congo. Back in 1997, Congolese President Laurent Kabilaagreed to let me step in when his negotiations with the United Nations sputtered during a U.N. investigation of Kabila’s massacre of refugees. More than a decade later, after his son Joseph became president and was facing a possible violent coup from an opposition candidate who accused him of rigging the vote, my participation as an independent voice helped cool tempers and avert a civil war.

So that’s what we need to do first: Bring in a third-party mediator. Better yet, bring in two.

I would suggest an odd couple, two people with wide experience and expertise on the budget, the debt limit and the American economy in general: Timothy Geithner and Henry Paulson. These former Treasury secretaries have the respect of Congress and the independence to speak truth to the powers that have gotten us into this mess. Current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is more than capable, but lamentably we’re at a point where his ongoing association with the Obama administration makes his opinions suspect in the eyes of some.

Second, focus on the potential outlines of a deal. Obama has begun this process by taking the health-care law off the table. Defaulting is a bridge too far; it cannot happen, and everyone needs to agree to that at the outset. Float the idea of an agreement involving spending cuts, tax reform and modest entitlement reform, and pretend not to be surprised if they consider the offer. (In a negotiation, there’s rarely any harm in testing the waters. It’s hardly an exhausting chore for the other side to say no.)

For example, when I was in a desert hut in Sudan, hoping to secure the release of three Red Cross workers, I noticed that many of the village children were dying of malnutrition and fetid water. I mentioned it to the rebel leader Kerubino — his own daughter had died only two days before our meeting — and soon we were working on that problem as well. I promised aid to clean up the water; he released the hostages. The key tactic here is to offer something the other side wants and needs more than whatever you’re actually negotiating over. For congressional Republicans, those needs and wants are spending cuts and tax reform.

Third, the president should convene the congressional leadership and mediators in the White House and lock the doors until they reach a deal. (Brief meetings followed by name-calling news conferences are hardly productive.) This strategy worked in 1990, when congressional negotiators and the White House worked out a budget deal at Andrews Air Force Base. From now on, the major players should refrain from making public statements that are aimed at pleasing their caucuses but only lock the parties into intractable positions.

I learned this lesson the hard way. In 2011, when Cuban authorities initially refused to release USAID worker Alan Gross to my custody, I ran to the cameras and insisted that I wasn’t leaving Cuba without him. Four days later, I left Cuba without him. My public whining made the Cubans even less willing to negotiate; they were clearly upset that I had tried to shame them. Gross remains in a Cuban prison today.

Fourth, be honest about where the real problem lies. It is obvious that 30 to 40 tea party Republicans are holding the speaker hostage in the House. Speaker John Boehner should allow a test vote on a “clean” bill — one that would leave the health-care law intact — to raise the debt limit to see if the bullying tactics of these members are strong enough to keep the country in crisis. Democrats should find a scenario to allow Boehner and others to save face. Even better: If and when this gets resolved, let him decide how he wants to announce the good news, if indeed the news is good.

There’s been far too much venting, partisanship and damage to the country. Over the years, I’ve worked with Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. They’re all good people, but they need a little help and breathing room to get out of this mess.

outlook@washpost.com

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