Bargainers Slog Away While Colleagues Make Political Hay
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The rhetoric swirled through the marble corridors of the Capitol. Republicans and Democrats alike hauled out their most colorful, cataclysmic language and vowed a battle royal should anyone dare to raise taxes.
All the while, in a room across the hall from the Senate chamber, the men who actually might decide if taxes would be raised hunkered down and got to work.
″It was kind of like being in the eye of a storm,″ said Senate Budget Committee Chairman James Sasser, D-Tenn., one of those in the quiet bargaining room.
The issue that day last month was taxes after President Bush abandoned his staunch anti-tax stance. But the scene is the same every day that negotiators for the White House and Congress try to shrink the federal deficit while their colleagues play the issues for all their political worth.
The negotiators’ ability to seek compromise while the rest of the Capitol rings with partisan clamor reflects two overriding factors: their perspective about the task they’ve been assigned and the personalities of the people involved.
The bargainers must look at the federal budget from exactly the opposite perspective that most members of Congress usually have.
The negotiators are looking for $50 billion in new taxes and spending cuts for next year and about $500 billion over the next five years, a search that entails nothing but thorny choices.
They know that if they fail, the Gramm-Rudman balanced-budget law will automatically cut tens of billions of dollars from most programs this fall.
Most lawmakers, on the other hand, see their jobs as a constant battle to bring federal dollars back home and to protect their districts from pain.
″These people sitting around the table are staring the deficit problem in the face,″ said Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the House Budget Committee who is not one of the negotiators. ″Members of Congress are staring their constituents in the face.″
Participants in the talks are aware of this dichotomy, and say that reacting to it is a crucial part of their job.
″If we don’t keep our lines of communication open to those members and make sure they have input, we may come down from the mountaintop with an agreement that nobody is prepared to vote for,″ said one of the bargainers, House Budget Committee Chairman Leon Panetta, D-Calif.
The talks have been moving slowly for two months. But participants say the negotiating has gotten more serious since Bush’s reversal on his tax position.
Bargainers would like to complete a deal on a package before the beginning of the August congressional recess. Negotiations resume Tuesday.
Another reason for the negotiators’ single-mindedness is the personality and political instincts of many of the people in the bargaining room - and their bosses.
By historical accident, many of the key figures are moderate, consensus- build ing politicians who believe that compromise is what effective governing is all about.
Bush, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, all fit that mold. President Ronald Reagan and former House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, did not.
″There’s no Jim Wright in there,″ said Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn., one of the House’s most conservative members. ″There isn’t even a Tip O’Neill,″ the Massachusetts Democrat who as speaker was a persistent liberal champion during the Reagan years.
Ideologues are few among the negotiators, with the best examples being the staunchly anti-tax Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, No. 2 House Republican Newt Gingrich of Georgia and the White House chief of staff, John Sununu.
Sasser, a former chairman of his state’s Democratic Party, and No. 3 House Democratic leader William H. Gray of Pennsylvania are perhaps the most partisan of the Democratic bargainers.
The bargaining teams are loaded with lawmakers who have been through the budget wars before and who seem inclined to compromise to deal with the deficit. These include Panetta; Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.; Rep. Bill Frenzel, R-Minn.; and the White House Budget Director, Richard Darman.
″You’re dealing with people,″ said Rep. Tim Penny, D-Minn., ″who really are willing to give a little bit of their own agenda to achieve the goal of deficit reduction.″