'Cliff' talks seem to follow old script: Public lines, private events differ
WASHINGTON -- High-level negotiations between the White House and Capitol Hill in times of divided government tend to follow a script.
This year's talks about how to avert the "fiscal cliff," for the most part, appear to track a familiar line: The outside message from the top players is often different from what's happening on a parallel track inside the room where the final deal is being crafted.
Publicly, both President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner continue to argue their positions on taxes and entitlement reforms, hoping they can win the public relations battle that frames their respective party as the one responsibly pursuing a solution and the other side as the one that won't budge.
"I'm not going to sign any package that somehow prevents the tax rate from going up for folks in the top 2%," the president said Thursday at a campaign-style visit with a Virginia family to highlight his stand on taxes.
On Friday, Boehner responded: "Instead of reforming the tax code and cutting spending, the president wants to raise tax rates. But even if the president got the tax rate hike that he wanted, understand that we would continue to see trillion-dollar deficits for as far as the eye can see."
After a meeting between the two men Sunday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest and Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck issued identical statements, saying that there had been no breakthrough but that the lines of communication remain open.
But as all that's happening for public consumption at the White House and Capitol Hill press studios, a tight circle of trusted aides float proposals on how much they might be willing to compromise inside conference rooms or over e-mail.
While those staff-level exchanges did stop for a week after aides on both sides said there was no one giving ground, they have now resumed after a phone call last week between Obama and Boehner.
Two former senior Capitol Hill insiders who worked on opposite sides of negotiations similar to the fiscal cliff talks agree that public posturing will continue for a while. They agree there won't be any major breakthroughs on a deal until both sides feel the pressure of the deadline and their backs are against the wall.
"Nothing happens until it has to happen," said Jim Manley, former senior communications adviser for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and a longtime aide to former Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Ron Bonjean, a former spokesman for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and aide to top Senate Republicans, noted that while the public may be focused on the dwindling deadline for a fiscal cliff deal, the year-end time frame is "a lifetime in Congress."
Both Bonjean and Manley are veterans of a series of high-profile showdowns on government funding, comprehensive education legislation and tax cuts.
Inside the Capitol, major negotiations often coincide with the holidays at the end of the year. Staffers work long hours inside the building that Bonjean referred to as a "biosphere."
"Everybody's Christmas shopping online," the GOP strategist said. "Reporters are standing outside these rooms, waiting, staking out and waiting for something to happen. It's like watching grass grow for hours."
But Manley emphasized that maneuvering the line between public statements and private meetings can be a delicate dance.
"From my perspective, it was always important to try not to get too wrapped up in the angry rhetoric and the charges being lobbed by either side because in the end my goal was to protect Sen. Reid and make sure he's in a position to get a deal done," Manley said.
Bonjean pointed out that Obama's campaign-style events could complicate talks: "It really ticks Republicans off and actually hardens their position."
But Democrats on Capitol Hill are applauding the president's strategy to concentrate in this negotiation on the outside messaging after their frustration that in previous talks he spent too much time trying privately to get House Republicans to compromise.
"The good news is that I think the president and his team finally came to the realization that they can't negotiate with hostage takers and that they've learned their lessons from the debt limit debacle last year," Manley said. "They're prepared to take their case to the American people, which I think in this current atmosphere where the political process is largely broken, that that's the only game in town."
In the two years since becoming speaker, Boehner has faced off with Reid and Obama on bills to avoid a government shutdown, raise the debt ceiling and renew tax cuts.
But Boehner previously had earned a reputation as a skilled negotiator as the chairman of the House Education Committee and worked across the aisle with Kennedy on the landmark No Child Left Behind education bill as well as pension reforms and disabilities legislation.
Manley worked for Kennedy then and observed Boehner up close. He pointed to those negotiations as instances when what was said outside the room didn't always match what was going on behind the scenes.
"Both were smart, wily legislators who realized there's a difference between what you say outside some times and what you agreed to when you actually begin negotiating."
But there are points inevitably when the talks break down, and in many cases deals fall apart multiple times before they get revived.
Quietly, a leader of one party may decide to try to convince members of the other party to break ranks as a way to build pressure -- something these congressional veterans agree is certainly going in as a part of fiscal cliff negotiations.
"That was key," Bonjean said, pointing out times when then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott would try to box in the Democratic leader Tom Daschle by recruiting centrist Democrat John Breaux to bring other Democrats on board.
"While the negotiations were breaking down on issues like the tax cut or IDEA (a disabilities law), you would try to pick off members and create a bipartisan resolution," he said.
One thing that has complicated the ability to get things done behind the scenes is the influence of social media, with an expanded press corps reporting every development, often in real time.
"The media landscape has changed in this 24-hour news cycle we live in where every moment is tweeted, every utterance is put on a blog, every meeting is known before it even happens oftentimes, and it's just much more difficult to get something done these days," Manley said.
Bonjean said "sitting in a room and having it being live-tweeted out to the press" makes leaders nervous as the deadline approaches.
-- CNN senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash contributed to this report.
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