AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
To Washington now, where the White House and Speaker John Boehner have less than three weeks to compromise their way back from the fiscal cliff. The issues on the table are huge and complicated by the number of moving parts, from tax rates to budget cuts. Further muddling things is the matter of political clout. The president and House Republicans both claim the election proved voters are on their side. With the holidays upon us, there's a natural incentive to wrap things up. But as NPR's Don Gonyea reports, veteran negotiators outside Washington say, yeah, right.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: The deadline is midnight, December 31, and each side knows essentially what they need to give to get a deal so they could - could - get serious and perhaps wrap things up by the end of next week before Christmas. But such talk prompts a skeptical reaction from veterans of other high-stakes, high-profile negotiations. Arthur Schwartz is a former General Motors executive who spent more than two decades bargaining with the United Auto Workers.
ARTHUR SCHWARTZ: I've heard a million times that, oh, the UAW and the auto companies are close. And my feeling, I just say, OK. We'll wait and see. And of course, it never happens. Everybody settles at the end, and I don't see why this would be any different.
GONYEA: There's almost three weeks left. Schwartz says, quote, "That's an eternity." Harley Shaiken is a labor specialist at the University of California at Berkeley who's familiar with optimistic chatter about a quick deal.
HARLEY SHAIKEN: When I here that this could be done early, I have a sense of been there, done that.
GONYEA: Shaiken adds.
SHAIKEN: It always seems like you could do it early. It also seems like you could have gotten more no matter what you get. Both tend to be a bit illusory. The pressure of a deadline with real consequences is a powerful motivator for both sides.
GONYEA: The big reason the deadline is so critical is that every negotiator has constituents to please. For instance, in a labor negotiation, it may be workers who are angry about job and pay cuts. For Speaker Boehner, today, it's the most conservative elements in the GOP caucus and the Tea Party. Again, former GM negotiator Arthur Schwartz.
SCHWARTZ: Unless you get everything that your constituency wants - and almost nobody gets everything their constituency wants - they're going to wonder why you quit early. Why didn't you take these guys right to the end and really push them hard?
GONYEA: In auto talks, failure to get a deal means a strike. Like this one against GM in 1998.
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GONYEA: In the current talks in Washington, failure could have brought economic and political consequences. The negotiators know this. According to Richard Shell, who runs the executive negotiation workshop at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton school, whatever they're saying in public, in private they have a different job.
RICHARD SHELL: When people sit down with grave responsibilities to negotiate something that affects hundreds of millions of people, they are feeling the weight of that responsibility differently in the room looking into the eyes of the people that they have to work with than they feel it when they are facing their constituents and making speeches.
GONYEA: One side almost always has more leverage in contract talks. Shell says President Obama occupies that role this time, but that doesn't mean he won't have to give up things near and dear to him. Ultimately, Shell says both sides need to come away with the sense that they've gotten all they could and...
SHELL: That they've made a good enough deal today to survive and fight again tomorrow.
GONYEA: And that prospect of more fights to come is as sure as anything else in these negotiations. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.