This time, it’s different: Negotiations have no place in latest fiscal crisis

October 1, 2013

Everything is different this time.

The fiscal showdowns of the past three years have all followed a familiar script: chapter and verse leading to a messy but predictable end. First came the pseudo-negotiators, working away on preliminary proposals and hoping to avoid calamity. Secretly, President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) would then decide to go big, aiming for a major bipartisan deal worthy of the moment.

Then came the breakup, the inevitable, acrimonious crash and burn.

Finally, the town elders would rush in and save the day with a desperately negotiated deal that no one loved, but which prevented the federal government from going over the cliff. That’s how it worked with the 2011-debt ceiling negotiations and the New Year’s Day pact to avoid the “fiscal cliff.”

Not this time. A different set of political dynamics has upended the old playbook, and a resolution to this fiscal crisis seems especially remote. Obama, Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) remain far apart, having occasional phone calls but no substantive negotiations.

House shutdown vote tracker: See which Republicans say they will vote for a “clean” spending bill to end the shutdown.

Boehner, having barely survived a coup attempt from within his own ranks, has vowed to steer clear of any one-on-one talks with Obama. The president, freshly reelected but facing questions from his left flank about his backbone, dug in months ago, vowing not to get involved in any horse trading with Boehner over the issue of increasing Treasury’s borrowing authority.

Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the elder statesmen who have closed most recent fiscal deals, have stayed on the sidelines.

That left Reid, itching for a showdown, eager to rewrite the annals of recent negotiations in Washington by drawing a line in the sand and refusing to budge.

“In the art of negotiation, you have to get to a place where you give both sides the ability to save face,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said Tuesday. That place remained distant as of Tuesday night.

The behind-the-scenes moves, so far, have been defined by what isn’t happening. No substantive negotiations took place Tuesday, the first day of a government shutdown, just as no substantive negotiations took place Monday or Sunday.

Some House Republicans, who have largely driven this strategy against the wishes of most veteran GOP lawmakers, rejoiced at having avoided direct talks with Obama and instead passing bills without any heavily negotiated process. They have been shuttling legislation to Reid’s Senate, where it has been repeatedly rejected by his Democratic majority.

“We’re back to regular order. We’re doing it the right way,” Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.), a junior member of the GOP leadership, said Tuesday as she exited another closed-door meeting of House Republicans.

The “regular order” being touted by Republicans is markedly different from what happened in previous showdowns. In the spring, facing criticism that he lacked any personal bonds with lawmakers, Obama hosted a series of dinner parties, with a particular emphasis on Senate Republicans.

Out of those meals came the “Diners Club,” a semi-regular group of GOP senators who tried working with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on longer-range fiscal issues.

This group became the latest incarnation of the pseudo-negotiators who have toiled away in the early stages of fiscal deals. In May and June 2011, Biden and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) led an ad hoc group tasked with coming up with budget savings in exchange for lifting the debt ceiling. That group was loosely modeled on another group of four lawmakers who served as early negotiators before a December 2010 tax deal was reached between Biden and McConnell.

The Biden-Cantor group didn’t clinch a deal, but came up with a menu of options worth more than $2 trillion in savings — a level of success the Diners Club didn’t come close to approaching. Off and on over a few months, the eight GOP senators met with McDonough but could never agree on much. They discussed grand bargains and mini-grand bargains, but the Republicans could never deliver the increased tax revenue the White House sought to buffer the automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, that resulted in the eventual 2011 debt deal.

“There is no next step,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said after the last Diners Club meeting in August.

The second and third acts never happened in this round of negotiations, mostly because of the bitter memories of the Obama-Boehner talks. In July 2011 and again in December 2012, Obama and Boehner engaged in secretive talks that were aimed at a grand bargain that would have resulted in $4 trillion in savings over a decade, much bigger than their deputies had been willing to consider.

Both times they grew very close, and both negotiations moved within reach of a historic deal.

Yet each negotiation ended in bad breakup, as Boehner ran into trouble with his GOP caucus as word leaked he was considering $1 trillion in new tax revenue. Conservatives were furious, and rank-and-file lawmakers complained they learned about the status of talks through the media. It left Boehner weakened, and he nearly lost his reelection bid in January for a second term as speaker amid a conservative revolt.

Republicans mapped out a new approach for 2013. It included reordering their legislative priorities, but also made clear that Boehner would not repeat those talks with Obama. “We’re not going to do things the way we did in the 112th,” Rep. Steve Southerland II (R-Fla.), a new member of the leadership, said in an interview this year. “He’s going back to a team concept.”

Obama also decided he did not want a repeat of 2011 and 2012. White House officials have blamed that on their inability to trust the speaker’s ability to deliver results, but it also comes from their decision in early 2012 to avoid protracted talks on Capitol Hill and instead try to elevate the president above the fray.

Democratic allies have complained that when Obama — or Biden as his stand-in — delves into the details, he ends up giving away too much. In the past few weeks, Obama has repeatedly reached Boehner by phone — not to negotiate, but instead to remind him that he’s not negotiating.

That has left Reid as the main point of contact for Republicans, and the Senate leader has insisted on a daily basis that he will not haggle with Boehner over GOP demands to defund Obama’s health-care law, instead telling the speaker to pass the Senate’s continuing resolution that would reopen the government.

“So our negotiation is over with. And I’ve said that for two weeks. They should pass a CR. They are closing down the government. I don’t know what in the world is wrong with them,” Reid said Monday.

In previous confrontations, this would be the point at which Biden and McConnell rushed in to prevent national peril. It was those two who finalized the 2010 tax deal, the 2011 debt deal and the 2012 “fiscal cliff” pact.

For now, that seems unlikely. McConnell is fighting a two-front reelection battle, with a tea party-backed primary challenger accusing him of selling out conservative principles in his deals with Biden and a younger Democrat accusing him of being cowed by the far right.

McConnell has publicly declared that he won’t step into any talks involving increased taxes or increased spending.

Biden, meanwhile, has spent more time in the past month fanning the flames of his own presidential ambitions. A few weeks ago he attended a high-profile event in Iowa, followed by a trip to South Carolina, two of the early testing grounds of the 2016 campaign.

This has left rank-and-file lawmakers completely unsettled, with no one particularly sure how the process will unfold.

“They’ll eventually get there; they’ll eventually talk,” Coburn said. “There’ll eventually be a compromise and there’ll eventually be a way for Republicans, both sides, to save face.”

Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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