Back Channel Negotiations Could Forestall A Government Shutdown

Now that President Obama has threatened to veto the House’s spending legislation, things will really heat up.

As House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D_MD) reminded reporters yesterday, President Clinton drew some bright lines himself during the budget fight in late 1995 — and we all know how that one ended. And House Republicans are set to add a bunch of riders to the spending package, which will make it even more toxic to Democrats.

One way out of this for House Republicans would be to set up back-channel negotiations with Senate leadership and the White House and basically take the ball out of the hands of rank-and-file conservatives who want to undermine the administration in unacceptable ways.I asked around about this Tuesday afternoon while Senate Democrats and Republicans met with their respective caucuses for weekly policy lunches. At the moment, such negotiations are being very tightly held, if they’re occurring at all.

“I’m not aware of any,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) joked that if he revealed the existence of any discussions, “they wouldn’t be back channel.”

At a Wednesday press conference, Reid said Senate appropriators would put together their own spending package in the coming days as a counterpoint to the House legislation. And Reid’s top deputy Dick Durbin (D-IL) said he’s unaware of any top-level negotiations between House and Senate leaders.

When the stakes are really high, and members of the two different caucuses have wildly different priorities, it’s not uncommon for the principals to take matters into their own hands and reach a take-it-or-leave-it agreement that neither side really likes that much. It happened in December during the tax cut fight, when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) came to an agreement with the White House while reporters staked out largely meaningless “official” negotiations on the Hill.

Something similar could happen here. McConnell touched on this phenomenon briefly during his weekly press conference Tuesday afternoon.

“It doesn’t have to be in public,” he said. “We all understand there’s some limitations to negotiating significant agreements in public.”

He was talking about entitlement reform, but the point stands for an agreement that could forestall a government shutdown.