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Going Quiet: White House ‘Reserve’ Helped Ink Deal

Boehner, left, and Obama have tried before to cut budget deals. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Boehner, left, and Obama have tried before to cut budget deals. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The White House was remarkably tight-lipped during talks with congressional leaders that produced a sweeping fiscal accord, and lawmakers say that silence helped the negotiators reach a deal that had so often eluded them.  

Obama administration officials turned to Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan to lead talks with departing Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Many experts identified hurdles and predicted failure.  

After all, the top congressional leaders and the Obama White House entered the talks having failed several other times to reach a long-term spending pact. But early on this time, things clearly were different: Few details leaked into public view, and all parties involved abided by an agreement to keep details under wraps.  

The informal gag order applied to the podium in the White House briefing room, where Press Secretary Josh Earnest and his deputies routinely breezed over the Obama administration’s top goals and major deal breakers. But, otherwise, the White House kept criticisms of Republican negotiating terms and tactics behind closed doors.  

“Quiet is always better when you’re trying to negotiate,” Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday.  

The White House appeared committed to keeping its non-critical tone in place as congressional leaders continue selling the plan to their members in hopes of mustering enough to votes to push it through both chambers in coming days.  

“The last seven years, we’ve gone from crisis to recovery and we’re on the verge of being able to have a genuine economic resurgence here,” Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. told reporters Tuesday. “And what we’ve put together is a good deal. No one got everything they wanted. But it will last for two years and it will prevent us from lurching from crisis to crisis.”  

Several GOP senators who have been a part of past budget talks acknowledged things were quieter, including from the White House, this time around.  

“We all knew that negotiations were going on, but…” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said as he let his comment trail off with a slight shrug.  

Republican senators acknowledged they heard very little about what was being discussed, including from White House officials, before they were briefed by their leaders Monday evening.  

Senate GOP Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota and Banking Chairman Richard C. Shelby heard so few details that they said Tuesday they were still awaiting full details of the agreement.  

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, considered a White House ally on many issues, said “if this does come together, both sides deserve to be commended” for avoiding potentially damaging leaks.  

Reed told CQ Roll Call the White House’s silence reflected an acknowledgement of the ramifications of failing to get a deal before Boehner left Washington.  

“I think this is such an unusual time,” he said. “You had a speaker that was able to make judgments that he otherwise wouldn’t if he was worried about maintaining his position going forward …  Just a whole set of circumstances that were unique.”  

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., chuckled when asked about the White House’s silence.  

“I think that’s because they were centrally involved in crafting it,” he said. “The folks who stand in the way of a clean debt ceiling increase and a responsible budget compromise are a small caucus of conservative Republicans in the House.  

“Given the persistent opposition to anything this administration does [from] that group,” Coons said, “some reserve on the part of the administration probably was constructive.”  


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