RNA polymerase of both bacteria and eukaryotes can stall or pause within tens of base pairs of its initiation site at the promoter, a state that may reflect important regulatory events in early transcription. In the bacterial model system, the σ70 initiation factor stabilizes such pauses by binding a downstream repeat of a promoter segment, especially the '-10' promoter element. We first show here that the '-35' promoter element also can stabilize promoter-proximal pausing, through interaction with σ70 region 4. We further show that an essential element of either type of pause is a sequence just upstream of the site of pausing that stabilizes RNA polymerase backtracking. Although the pause is not intrinsically backtracked, we suggest that the same sequence element is required both to stabilize the paused state and to potentiate backtracking.