Why backroom deals are out in 'sequester' talks

Backroom deals resolved the debt-ceiling crisis and the 'fiscal cliff' – why not the sequester? Because the House Republican rank and file are not allowing it.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Speaker of the House John Boehner walks away after speaking about the sequester following a meeting with President Obama and congressional leaders at the White House in Washington Friday.

President Obama’s meeting with congressional leaders on Friday offered no inkling of compromise between lawmakers and Mr. Obama on the automatic spending reductions known as the “sequester” beginning the same day.

But it illuminated a lot about how, this time, negotiations are likely to be different. Remember the private conversations between the president and Republican leaders that eventually resolved the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis and last year's "fiscal cliff"? There will likely be less of those and more bills moving through Congress.

Backroom deals are out; “regular order” is in.

"Over the coming weeks, we’ll have the opportunity to ensure funding is at the level we promised while working on solutions for making spending reductions more intelligently than the president’s across-the-board cuts," said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky in a statement. "But I want to make clear that any solutions will be done through the regular order, with input from both sides of the aisle in public debate. I will not be part of any backroom deal and I will absolutely not agree to increase taxes.”

Republicans are loath to engage in the same kind of behind-the-scenes talks going forward because the most conservative members of the GOP rank-and-file see such private leadership klatches as ways for leadership to sell out. Their prime example is the fiscal cliff deal struck between Vice President Joe Biden and Senator McConnell, in which many Republicans were compelled to choke down voting for the first tax increase in nearly two decades.
 “Following the New Year’s Eve fiscal cliff negotiations, Americans demanded that Washington get serious about spending,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R) of Kansas before Friday's meeting. “Instead, the White House is calling for yet another 11th-hour, closed-door meeting just like the ones that got us into this mess.

"Americans are tired of backroom deals that don’t address the true problem – spending – and they are ready for tough decisions," he added. "What will it take for Congress and the president to put an end to this crisis-to-crisis mode of governing?”

As McConnell's comments suggest, Republican leaders have heard the message loud and clear.

According to a recap of the Friday meeting from the office of House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio: If a sequester fix is to be had, Speaker Boehner “suggested the most productive way to resolve the sequester issue will be through regular order.”
 While "regular order" traditionally refers to the lengthy process of drawing bills through congressional committees, taking them onto the respective chamber’s floor for amendments, and then into a conference between the House and Senate to iron out the differences, the contemporary usage means something slightly different. It is code for congressional leaders sounding out their members earlier in the negotiating process to make sure the rank-and-file understand the plan going forward.
 This approach appears to be the new operating procedure of House Republicans, in particular. Even some of the most boisterous critics of party leadership backed the idea when Republicans leaders opened debate on House strategy at their annual retreat in Williamsburg, Va., earlier this year.
 “We finally have the Republican conference unified,” said Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho. “The president has done a very good job over the last year of, you know, dividing this conference. And we’ve had all these different issues that we have been fighting about, and we finally have a plan, we have a vision.”
 The main takeaway from Friday’s meeting appears to be a broadening consensus that Congress and the White House should work together to head off the next potential crisis: avoiding a government shutdown on March 27. That's welcome news to House Republicans looking to avoid last-minute, closed-door negotiations.

“The president and leaders agreed legislation should be enacted this month to prevent a government shutdown while we continue to work on a solution to replace the president’s sequester,” according to the statement from Boehner’s office,

Obama echoed that sentiment during his press conference following the meeting.

“There's no reason why we should have another crisis by shutting the government down in addition to these arbitrary spending cuts,” Obama said.
 But the president, too, noted that even presidential influence can’t force an accord through private negotiations if congressional leaders are unwilling to bite.

“I am not a dictator, I'm the president,” Obama said. “So ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say, 'We need to go to catch a plane,' I can't have Secret Service block the doorway, right?”

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