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An Insider's View Of The Debt Ceiling And Shutdown Talks


So what is going on behind closed doors? Just how do these top-level congressional talks work? We're going to get some inside dope now from a former insider, Jim Manley, who was a top adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and before that, press secretary to Sen. Ted Kennedy. Jim Manley, welcome.

JIM MANLEY: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: You know, we heard over the weekend that Sen. Reid and the minority leader, Mitch McConnell, had spoken once by phone. They have met a few times today. But it doesn't sound like the really heavy, ongoing negotiation. Is most of this carried out by aides, not by the players themselves?

MANLEY: Oh, au contraire. You could always tell when a negotiation is successful when nobody is talking. That's a classic Reid move. He doesn't like to do his negotiating in public. And so I took it as a sign, a positive sign, yesterday when there were very few, if any, details released about what he's talking about. He hates to negotiate in public.

BLOCK: Paint us a bit of a picture of what that room would look like as Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are meeting to try to hash through this. Who else is in the room? What's going on?

MANLEY: If there's anyone in the room, it's their respective chiefs of staff. Oftentimes, however, they conduct most of their negotiations in private. Both are men of very few words. Sen. Reid always has the ability to cut deals there on the spot. Sen. McConnell, one of the most cautious politicians I've ever met, always wants to take things back and review it with his "kitchen cabinet" and then later, his caucus. So it takes a little bit longer than Sen. Reid would sometimes want.

Sen. Reid has no problem with going down to Sen. McConnell's office. Beautiful suite that's, you know, helps to strike the right vibe of, you know, the old-school legislating from the yesteryear. He's got to walk down the hallway. In this day and age, in the age of Twitter, there's no such thing as private meetings anymore. Every move is heavily scrutinized and-or then tweeted about. There's been times when I have had to bring Sen. Reid backdoor to an elevator, to have him escape the waiting press corps. But in this day and age, especially with the Twitter, it's very difficult to do. Thankfully, Twitter still can't reach into the inner workings of the negotiating process.

BLOCK: How different - based on your experience from your time in the Senate, how different is what's said for public consumption and what's said privately behind closed doors?

MANLEY: Oftentimes, a whole heck of a lot. The smart ones know that there's oftentimes a huge difference between the public jousting that goes on to assuage, you know, the concerns of the base, and what is said privately. Bad leaders take into account the public rhetoric and react accordingly. The smart ones don't let that kind of outside noise bother them; and they go about trying to cut the deal that, you know, they need to cut.

BLOCK: You know, there's been a lot written about the really poisoned relationship between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell. It's on page one of The Washington Post today with the headline: Can The Senate's Dealmakers Overcome Their Bitter Rift? How key are personalities here and in particular, the personalities of these two men?

MANLEY: Absolutely crucial in the Senate, where unanimous consent is required for all but the most routine matters. There's no denying that there's been a furious back and forth between the two of them in the last year or so. From Reid's perspective, Sen. McConnell has done everything he can to undermine the president's agenda. Sen. McConnell would charge that Sen. Reid is using heavy-handed tactics to get something done in the Senate.

But again, they have served as whips together. They have worked on legislation together. They served on the Appropriations Committee together, so I think there's at least a chance that they can cut a deal.

BLOCK: Jim Manley, former top adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and before that, Sen. Ted Kennedy. He's now with QGA Public Affairs here in Washington. Jim, thanks for coming in.

MANLEY: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.