Photo: AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke
As President Barack Obama and congressional leaders continue discussions over raising the debt ceiling and lowering the deficit, we thought we’d provide you with an insider’s view of the debt ceiling talks.Jim Manley, who until January was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s Communications Director, provides his take on the negotiations below:
Q: I was hoping you could walk our readers through a little of what we’re seeing in Washington right now. What the technical processes are? What’s going on behind the scenes? What should our readers be looking for?
A: I guess the game right now is that now that Senator [Mitch] McConnell has made his proposal we have to wait and see for a more formal reaction from the President and the leaders in the House and the Senate. There is another meeting at the White House at four this afternoon; the question is whether this is something that will not only be acceptable to Democrats, but Republicans as well. Senator Reid is holding a caucus on it. When asked about it yesterday he demurred — he said he didn’t want to trash the proposal. My point is that he wanted to take the time to review it and review it with the caucus. He set up a meeting with the caucus this afternoon to review the details. And then once he gets a better handle on it, he’ll be better prepared for the White House meeting this afternoon.
Q: What are the signposts? What are the indicators that maybe all the parties involved are moving a bit closer together in the talks?
A: We’ve had a lot of rhetoric from all different parties, from folks not involved in negotiations. The next question is what happens when they meet at the White House this afternoon. Often times there is a difference between the chatter of the rank and file and what the leadership are prepared to do, so we’ll have to wait and see what comes out of that. I personally am still trying to work through what McConnell proposed. On one hand I think it’s a complete abdication of any sort of legislative responsibility and flies in the face of the Republican Party’s stated goals to reduce taxes and cut the deficit, but there might be some utility in taking them up on the proposal. The only sign-post I have right now is a lot of different meetings in the House and the Senate to review the proposal – it came out of the blue yesterday – and the meeting at the White House this afternoon. This is their fourth meeting in a row on this issue — it’s rather unprecedented amount of time to be spending on an issue like this. To date the meetings haven’t led to much, the question whether there is going to be any change today, I’m not so sure there is. I see the base of the Republican Party rising up against this proposal. If that fails, then the question is where does that leave us.
Q: The rhetoric hasn’t been isolated to the base of the party, the rank and file. We’ve seen the leaderships stake out very clear positions on the issues. Will they dial it down, as they get closer to making a deal to give themselves more leeway?
A: I’m not sure I agree with the premise of the question. It kind of depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is. I have seen a lot of rancor within the ranks of those within the [House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor camp and those in the Boehner camp. I also think the Republican leadership in the last seven to 10 days has been all over the map. But I would agree without that the rhetoric is white hot these days. Sometimes that serves a purpose, it serves as a distraction while leaders go about doing the hard negotiating. That’s what we saw during the debate over the Omnibus a couple of months ago. A lot of nasty rhetoric, but the leadership sat down and worked out a proposal and all of the sudden they took it to their respective caucus and they got it done. So the rhetoric is white-hot right not, yes, and often times that could serve a purpose. The question is whether this time it’s gotten to be too much and whether it’s going to drive the camps farther and farther apart.
Q: You’ve been working in Washington for quite some time. Is there a precedent for getting this close to the debt ceiling, and perhaps being so far apart so close to the debt ceiling.
A: I’m old enough to have been around for the 1994-95 showdown between then-Speaker Gingrich and President Clinton. The other data point is that, as The Washington Post pointed out yesterday, we technically crossed that line at least once before. It was due in part to some technical issues apparently. While we may have been closer to a shutdown at lease once or twice in the past, it’s never been anything on this magnitude. The numbers we’re talking about here are astronomical. Many Republicans are suggesting they’ve already made their contribution by agreeing to simply have a vote on the debt limit proposal, which again I would charge is absolutely reckless. The question is whether we go down the path as articulated by Senator McConnell, or do we work out a more comprehensive proposal short of the “grand bargain” that would provide some mixture of cuts.
Q: We are seeing this in fighting between Cantor and Speaker Boehner, and some have generalized that this is the right wing of the party going after the moderate wing of the party. You have a similar situation on the Democratic side over entitlements, with some more willing to compromise and others saying no cuts at all. Is what we are seeing playing out in public Kabuki theatre? Is this some sort of Washington game being played to distract everybody from the real negotiations that are going on in the principals meeting?
A: I’d acknowledge that that has been a tactic in the past, but I’m still trying to work through what McConnell proposed. As a 20-year veteran of the Senate, at first blush it looks to me like they are completely repudiating their stated goals to cut spending and to reduce the deficit. Nothing in McConnell’s proposal is designed to do that. It is simply designed to put the onus for dealing with these problems on the President. So up until a day or so ago I would have told you these were fundamental principles, but now with McConnell apparently prepared to walk away from the brink, I’m not so sure this was not all just Kabuki theatre. It’s fair to say that things may be heating up, but we have to wait and see how everyone reacts at the White House this afternoon. Once the White House meeting is over, everyone is going to have to go back and sit down with their respective caucuses to continue to work through the issues. But like I said, this is not a slam-dunk. I just see a lot of anger rising up on the right. I think the jury’s still out. I don’t want to be too cute, but I guess I foolishly thought that the Republicans had principles at stake here, and now that might not be the case. Sorry if I’m being cynical, but in the past couple of days I’ve seen Speaker Boehner, Eric Cantor, and now Senator McConnell walk away from this debate.
Q: Knowing what you know from what is in the public domain and what you know privately, is there a deal to be made here?
A: Good question. The last time around, during the debate over the Omnibus, I publicly questioned whether Speaker Boehner could get the job done because of the pressure he was facing from the tea party. Obviously I was wrong them — I’m not so sure I’m wrong this time. I’m not sure there is anything that could be done. While on the one hand it is impossible to imagine this country going into default, whether technical or not, at this point in time, I’m not so sure I see a way out of it. Time will tell, and we’ll see how this thing with McConnell plays out in the next 24-48 hours. Some of the leaders want to do the responsible thing, including Senator McConnell and Speaker Boehner. I just don’t think that’s a sentiment shared by many in the Republican caucus in the House and to a lesser degree in the Senate.
Q: If you had to put odds to it, what are the chances of a deal being reached by next week, when the President says he’d like a deal?
A: That’s a very real deadline. No one should underestimate the problems that there are going to be with trying to get a bill through the Senate, given the procedural problem they face on all but the most routine pieces of legislation. I’d put it at 50-50, and that scares the hell out of me to say that, because the alternative is this country sliding into being something like a banana republic.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?
A: The only other thing that I can think of is that given the increased concern that people are having about what is going on in Europe, Italy now in trouble as well. The question is whether that’s going to really help focus folks’ attention so we can sit down and focus on these issues in a levelheaded manner. My point is that what’s going on there just highlights how delicate the economy is right now. What House Republicans are suggesting, I think would lead to economic catastrophe. Maybe all of this coming together will help to bring out an agreement.
A 20-year veteran of Capitol Hill, Manley served as an aide to then-Senator George Mitchell and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, before working for six years as staff director and/or spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, before going moving to the private sector earlier this year. He is now a Democratic strategist.
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