INSIDE WASHINGTON: Leaks, spin surround debt talks

July 15, 2011 - 4:29 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — They might be the least private private negotiations in Washington.

The closed-door White House debt talks this week have spilled out into the open almost the moment they wrapped up each day, with anonymous officials from each side of the aisle offering self-serving blow-by-blow accounts.

It's part of how Washington does business, but perhaps because of the high stakes for the economy as well as for the political fortunes of President Barack Obama and other participants, the debt ceiling crisis seems to be yielding even more leaks and spin than usual. Capitol Hill veterans have various explanations, including the scant progress being made and simmering distrust between Republicans and Democrats.

"A meeting that's making progress doesn't have any leaks. A meeting that's not making progress is Swiss cheese," said Republican consultant John Feehery, who served as a top aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

"They might as well have the meetings in front of the cameras. I don't know what's going on," Feehery said Friday. "It's awfully hard to negotiate a deal when every step is immediately leaked to the press."

The spin has been particularly notable given White House attempts to limit on-the-record coverage of the meetings. The White House often allows a small group of reporters to attend the beginning of such meetings, but that only happened in three of the six debt talk meetings. White House press secretary Jay Carney said it was an attempt to avoid a "circus" atmosphere after reporters shouted questions Monday.

Yet the leaks seemed to increase with each passing day. By the end of six days of meetings, officials were issuing written and verbal readouts like clockwork. The reports were so detailed, they practically transported someone inside the ornate Cabinet Room where Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and the top eight Democrats and Republicans in Congress met this week, usually late in the afternoon, around a large oval table set with coffee cups and glasses of water.

After a climactic midweek confrontation between Obama and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor that Cantor immediately recounted to reporters in vivid detail — not even bothering to hide behind anonymous aides, as is usually done — much interest around the next session Thursday was on whether there'd be a Round Two.

Both sides addressed that question Thursday evening, but as usual, Democrats and Republicans — speaking as unnamed aides, as is customary — had a different way of interpreting events.

"During the meeting, Speaker (John) Boehner did all the talking for House Republicans, while Leader Cantor did not say a word," a "Democratic aide" noted snippily.

An unnamed "GOP aide," on the other hand, didn't comment directly on Cantor's silence, instead emphasizing overall decorum after Cantor drew harsh criticism from Democrats for his approach with Obama. "The tone of the meeting was businesslike, cordial and polite," this aide said.

As for Obama, he disputed the notion that Cabinet Room meetings ever grew ugly. Besides, he said, the public didn't care.

"The American people are not interested in the reality TV aspects of who said what and did somebody's feelings get hurt," Obama said.

The White House meetings wrapped Thursday night with no new ones scheduled and both sides still dug into their positions, seemingly far from a breakthrough compromise before an Aug. 2 deadline to raise the federal government's borrowing limit or face unprecedented default. The negotiations then shifted to Capitol Hill, where House Democrats and Republicans quickly secreted themselves in private caucus meetings Friday.

They emerged only to take swipes at one another.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said House Republicans were trying to make sure "the president's attempt to shut down the government Aug. 2 doesn't happen."

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said Republicans were making compromise impossible because they insisted on "protecting the special interests here in Washington."

Jim Manley, former top spokesman to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that the volume of leaks and spin this week has been remarkable.

"I have been involved in these kinds of meetings during the last two administrations and have never seen such a torrent of leaks from supposed private conversations as I have this time around," Manley said. "It shows that neither side really trusts the other."