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Negotiating 101, 112th Congress-Style

Eleventh-hour brinksmanship. Backroom deals crafted by top leaders. Finger-pointing. Rank-and-file members grumbling in the dark.

Yes, the year-end fiscal cliff negotiations followed what has become a familiar script for the 112th Congress.

Passed by the Senate early Tuesday morning, the deal (HR 8) — with permanent tax relief for individuals below $400,000 and couples to $450,000 in income, among other provisions — has come under fire from both liberals and conservatives alike. And like previous deals on the payroll tax cut, preventing government shutdowns and avoiding a debt default in the past two years, it will likely require a bipartisan vote in the House to become law.

While that’s the last piece needed to close out the 112th, the negotiations’ well-worn path was largely predictable.

The Walkout

Speaker John A. Boehner’s decision to go his own way before Christmas on a stillborn “plan B” bill effectively killed chances for a grand bargain yet again. It was the fourth time in two years the Ohio Republican or House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., had walked away from the bargaining table with the White House.

Of course, walking away from the table is often the best negotiating tactic of all — either in real life or on Capitol Hill. This time, the results are mixed. Obama’s getting about half the revenue he sought — and less than Boehner originally offered after the president won re-election in November. But the GOP seems likely to have to swallow a deal with no significant upfront spending cuts.

The Deal Cutter

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been an indispensable dealmaker the past two years, even if sometimes he’d prefer to stay out of the line of fire. The Kentucky Republican hasn’t been able to bridge the partisan divide on a grand bargain, but his involvement — and his relationship with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. — proved critical in the past week after Boehner’s conference bailed on plan B. McConnell also didn’t get distracted by Obama’s own highly partisan speech midday on Monday — focusing instead of saving the tax deal he had tentatively reached with Biden — and removing Obama’s biggest leverage point for his second term.

It’s a role McConnell played to mixed success in the 2011 debt limit fight, when he offered the deal that would allow the debt ceiling to be raised by the White House with minimal congressional interference. He also was instrumental in saving the 2008 Wall Street bailout from failure, after the House balked at the deal and the stock market tanked.

The Back Room

Boehner complained shortly after the elections that there were too many back-room deals — but that seems to be the only way the 112th operates. Typically just a couple of leaders were directly involved at any one time, while other Members of Congress remained on the outside looking in, some even asking reporters what they’ve heard because they remained in the dark. Leaders keep vowing next time will be different, but it never is.

The Overreach

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