The two top fiscal cliff deal makers are meeting with everybody they can find -- except each other.
President Barack Obama is talking this week with small-business owners, Wall Street honchos and middle-class taxpayers before flying to Pennsylvania on Friday to see a toy manufacturer. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his leadership team are consulting with the some of the same executives who are meeting with Obama.
But face-to-face negotiations between the players best able to avert a fiscal cliff that's just 33 days away? Nowhere in sight.
This is the public relations phase of the latest fiscal showdown in Washington, where direct engagement is no longer viewed as the optimal route to reaching a deal. As Wall Street shudders and Congress once again risks looking feckless in the face of crisis, both sides are locked in a battle to win over key interest groups -- and the public.
It's an outside-in strategy -- the reverse of the inside-out strategy that collapsed the last time Obama and Boehner tried to craft a big budget deal.
The approach carries risks, given the short timetable, the complexity of piecing together a deal and the challenge of lining up enough votes for a controversial package that could include tax hikes and entitlement cuts. The lack of visible movement could rattle Wall Street and Main Street, both of which will face $500 billion in spending cuts and tax increases in the new year if Obama and Congress can't reach an agreement.
And it could cause both sides to dig in as the rhetoric increasingly shifts from conciliatory to confrontational.
"It seems like our friends on the other side are having some difficulty turning off the campaign," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters Tuesday. "We need to sit down and work this matter out. I think we have a clear sense that there's an opportunity here at the end of the year to do something important for the country. ... So I would hope our friends on the other side can kind of turn off the campaign and get into a cooperative mode here to reach a conclusion."
The White House isn't taking McConnell's advice.
Obama agreed to direct talks with Boehner during the 2011 debt limit showdown -- and spent little time making his case to the public. In the White House's view, the president suffered deeply when he came up short.
Hoping to avoid a repeat, Obama is attempting to leverage public opinion against congressional Republicans, divide their ranks and cast them as the obstacle to continuing a tax break for 98 percent of Americans. When the pressure gets too intense, the White House expects Republicans to fold, just as they did last December when Obama used social media and campaign-style events to win a renewal of the payroll tax cut.
The White House's strategy is a carbon copy of the payroll tax cut fight, down to a new Twitter campaign and video testimonials from average citizens on what an income tax hike would mean to them. Obama will use an event Wednesday to call on Americans to share their stories with the Twitter hashtag #My2K, which refers to the $2,200 tax hike that could hit a family of four if the Bush-era tax cuts aren't renewed by Jan. 1.
Republicans, for their part, are racing to keep up with the White House campaign, scheduling high-level meetings with small-business owners and chief executives of Goldman Sachs, Honeywell and Caterpillar.
As Obama re-enters campaign mode to make his case to the public, Republicans are warning that his strategy could backfire. One GOP aide said Obama's roadshow could "harden positions on our side against the president."
But White House aides said their approach is rooted in experience. Sitting in a room with Boehner for weeks on end didn't work in the past, they said.
"Talking to the American people seems more likely to yield better results, if the payroll tax fight and the past debt-limit negotiations are instructive at all," said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with close ties to the White House.
Obama and Boehner haven't met in person for 12 days and last spoke by phone Saturday. Administration officials have said there needs to be movement on the staff level before the two leaders meet in person again. As of late Tuesday, there wasn't enough progress to justify another session, according to sources familiar with the process.
Administration officials said Obama remains deeply involved in the process, receiving regular updates from his senior staff who are engaged in direct talks with top aides to Boehner and other leaders on Capitol Hill.
"Only inside the Beltway do people think that sitting in a room for a photo spray will solve, necessarily, problems," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday at his daily briefing. "The work has to be done, and that work is being done. And everybody needs, as the president said, to agree to the principle that compromise will require tough choices by each side. And the president is willing to do that and has demonstrated his willingness to do that."
Carney said it is "entirely appropriate" for Obama to take the debate to the public.
"The president will engage across the board, not just with congressional leaders but with a broad array of people from different communities who have a great stake in the outcome of these negotiations," he said.
But back on Capitol Hill, congressional aides are worried. There are less than four weeks before the Christmas break to take up legislation that will solve the tangle of issues. House Republicans will need to bring their members on board -- always a tall task, given the party's complex set of ideologies. Bills must be drafted, and the Senate has to set aside several days for its arduous floor procedures.
And the gap on issues is wide. Republicans have still not yielded on tax rates -- Obama's baseline demand is to allow taxes to increase on the wealthy.
"Instead of actually putting some specific proposals on the table, the [White House] is using its time and resources to conduct a public relations campaign that will do nothing except harden positions on our side against the president," one senior Republican aide said.
The president isn't the only fiscal cliff player maneuvering for a strategic advantage.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) delivered a speech Tuesday at the Center for American Progress on what liberals want out of a deal. Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, who led the president's debt commission in 2011, met with White House senior staff on Tuesday and will pay a visit Wednesday to House and Senate Democratic and Republican leadership.
The Capitol is going about its business as usual. McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) spent a chunk of Tuesday arguing about arcane legislative procedure on the floor.
House Republican leadership is spending much of their time in organizing sessions. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) rented out a movie theater Thursday night to show lawmakers the hit movie "Lincoln."
And Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the newly elected Republican whip for his chamber, on Tuesday visited the House whip meeting, where he emphasized the importance of "working together and never surprising each other. ... We want to work with you as closely as we can."
"I realize the Democrats are the opponent and the Senate is the enemy," Cornyn said before thanking McCarthy for having him there, according to a source.
House Republican leadership said they would distribute talking points to their membership and urge them to visit small businesses to sell their tax plan back home. Boehner's aides declined to say whether he would give a speech to match Obama's Friday address in Pennsylvania.
Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), a 31-year veteran of the House, said he "respect[s]" Obama's desire to galvanize people to his position. But the key is this: He still needs to be meeting with Boehner -- and frequently.
"He still needs to be on a path for negotiations and working with Mr. Boehner on it, and I think that can happen," Dreier said. "It's not going to be easy, but where there is life, there is hope. So I'm continuing to hold out hope."
Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who is now a lobbyist, said on Tuesday that "too much time is getting away from them here."
"What I'm hoping is what you're seeing is not what you're going to get, that there are really are more negotiations going on," Lott said during a visit to the Capitol. "I hope. But is it? I keep checking with my Democrat connections and they're shaking their head saying, 'I don't know.'"
Darren Samuelsohn and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.
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