In recent days, two different sets of secret talks have been under way in Washington. Each is aimed at achieving a “grand bargain” between hardened opponents. Both are given little chance of success. Both involve either current senators or former ones. And, most important, the negotiations will succeed only if each side admits that the other’s “core interests” are worthy of consideration.
The more secret of the talks are those focused on avoiding a fiscal crisis if Congress does not raise the federal debt limit this fall. President Obama (a former senator) has tasked his chief of staff to negotiate with a group of Republican senators in hopes of finding a consensus on spending cuts and raising tax revenue.
The other negotiations are between Israeli and Palestinian officials. They were doggedly arranged by Mr. Obama’s secretary of State, John Kerry – a former senator. He traveled to the Middle East six times in just six months – far more than his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton (a former senator). On Monday evening, he welcomed the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators for a casual dinner. Formal talks continued into Tuesday at the State Department.
For those talks, Mr. Kerry was able to achieve some concessions before they began. Israel released about 100 Palestinian prisoners. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dropped a key condition for the talks (suspending expansion of Jewish settlements). In the fiscal talks, by contrast, there is reportedly only a minor consensus so far – easy reforms of Social Security.
It is worth watching how these current and former senators tackle two of the most difficult issues of our times. What style of negotiating do they bring? How much were their tactics formed by the Senate being the more “deliberative” chamber of Congress, one in which lawmakers are more respectful, able to think longer term, and often more willing to cross party lines to find compromise?
The two talks so far show many of the traditional marks of the Senate. They are private, without grandstanding or media leaks. The two sides form personal bonds that allow a degree of empathy toward the other side’s most heartfelt positions. They build trust with small concessions at first, then creatively bridge differences or come up with original solutions. Such moves help reduce the possibility that either side will say “take it or leave it.”
Kerry has sweetened the Middle East talks by seeking $4 billion in investments for the Palestinian economy while asking a former US general to look at Israel’s security concerns in case of a deal. Those kinds of sweeteners are missing from the Obama-GOP talks.
In both talks, Obama is not yet directly at the table. He’s holding his political capital in reserve for later, when the toughest issues need a breakthrough by the person with the most clout.
Both these talks are hopeful signs that Washington, on both domestic and foreign issues, can still practice the delicate art of finding common ground between people who may not only differ on issues, but sometimes don’t even get along. Good negotiators play to history rather than the cameras. They are long on listening and short on yelling. They settle problems instead of scores.