A week before Thanksgiving, a small group of moderate senators gathered in the spacious living room of Senator Lisa Murkowski’s house on Capitol Hill to begin what they believed was an urgent assignment.
They were there – ate Tuscan takeout food as they sat socially distant and the windows were open to let the cold air circulate as a precautionary measure for the coronavirus – to talk about how the Senate polarized and paralyzed on almost everything can be to work again.
They were also determined to find a way to achieve a more immediate type of relief, pondering a month-long partisan stalemate by providing a new round of government aid to millions of Americans and businesses suffering from the economic weight of the coronavirus -Pandemic sufferers can be overcome.
The stimulus deal they discussed that evening ultimately showed that both were possible. In working out the compromise, the centrists formed a backbone for the $ 900 billion relief effort that Congress approved late Monday. Perhaps just as importantly, they provided a template for the kind of bipartisan business dealings that will be critical to keeping Congress functioning again in the Biden era, when tiny majorities in both chambers force the parties to find their way to the center take a bigger initiative.
“I think a divided government can be an opportunity,” said Ms. Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska. “How we take it, how we use it, is up to us.”
With President Trump almost absent from the talks, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. had to negotiate fiercely for a month – a month of moderation negotiating – fueled by Zoom calls, parking lots, and nightly sessions on Capitol Hill of pizza and moonshine – intense negotiations by party leaders and several near misses with a government shutdown to produce the end product. Two dozen lawmakers and advisers described the legislative initiative.
That November night at Ms. Murkowski’s, Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah and former business consultant, had arrived on his iPad with a proposal. But it was Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, whose presence at the meeting raised some eyebrows among Republicans, who went along with the proposal that set the tone.
Forget about a big incentive initiative, said Mr Durbin. What we need here is a limited contingency plan to get the country through March.
“That really opened our eyes,” Romney recalled.
Two hours away, in Wilmington, Delaware, a similar theory took shape among members of Mr. Biden’s transition team as they prepared for a public health and economic crisis. In order to give the elected president a chance to fight when he took office in January, they privately informed the Democrats that Congress would have to pass another stimulus plan to serve as a bridge to the new government, even if it was much smaller than it ultimately was to be needed.
The problem was, there wasn’t much time to make a deal.
Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia and the self-proclaimed ringleader of the efforts with Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, hugged his inner duty master and scheduled weekend and late night Thanksgiving meetings. Legislators split up into subgroups that dealt with the thorny issues the two parties had separated for months: structuring unemployment benefits, aid to states and cities, protection from coronavirus liability, funds for reopening schools and others Subjects.
Given a $ 1.8 trillion framework proposed weeks earlier by the Problem Solvers Caucus, a non-partisan group of members of the centrist house, and signals from party leaders, Mr. Manchin, Senator Mark Warner, and several others have been quick cobbled together a first draft that they both felt parties could live with. The differences between Democrats and Republicans were roughly divided, including the items both sides had agreed on, but also two dueling priorities that had weighed on their leaders: the liability protection demanded by the Republicans and the money that the Democrats used for state and government local governments existed whose revenues had collapsed in the economic crisis.
The haggling was intense and constant. Ms. Collins said she had never texted so much before. “This wasn’t a case where members started it and handed it over to staff,” she said.
During a Friday meeting, Rep. Tom Reed, Republican of New York and co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, called from his car and spent hours in a supermarket parking lot trying to fix the sticking points.
“If only America knew that $ 1 trillion in politics was being negotiated in the Sheetz parking lot,” Reed said.
Two weeks after dinner at Ms. Murkowski’s, they refined the initial $ 908 billion slice of pizza in a large Senate hearing room and rushed to arrange a press conference for the next morning. They were moving so fast that the posters Mr. Manchin ordered were not ready when the event started.
“Neither of us thought in good conscience that we could go home for Christmas if all these people were kicked out of their homes, shut down their businesses, and got into the food business,” said Mr. Warner, a Virginia Democrat. “It would be the ultimate Scrooge-like activity.”
The moderates didn’t know, but the Democratic leaders had carried out their own post-election recalibration after months of insisting that a deal less than $ 2 trillion was not enough.
Three days after dinner at Ms. Murkowski’s, Spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and minority leader, drove to Wilmington to meet with Mr. Biden and plan for the coming year. The message from the president-elect was clear.
“He knew we couldn’t get everything now, but anything we could get would make his job easier when he became president,” said Mr Schumer. “We arranged.”
When the moderates presented their plan, the top Democrats saw their chance. They quickly adopted it as the easiest means of launching negotiations.
It was a big change for the leaders, who had turned down twice the size of proposals from the Trump administration and refused to budge as the elections drew near, despite privately admitting that there was little momentum for a deal gave. During a call in late September, Ms. Pelosi told Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that she had spent a sleepless night watching a rerun of the 1987 cult classic, The Princess Bride. She compared her negotiations to Billy Crystal’s character, Miracle Max, describing a patient in the film who was tortured to the brink of death and pronouncing her as “mostly dead.”
Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, made his own reassessment but, as usual, stayed away from the public. Two days after the moderates revealed their outlines, Ms. Collins, Ms. Murkowski, Mr. Romney and Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana, met with Mr. McConnell in his spacious Capitol suite to brief the leader of their plan.
He gave the legislature reason to be optimistic. What you did is rid the Democrats of their $ 2 trillion and get involved again, he told them. This is helpful.
A week passed and Mr. McConnell was more open to a deal. At his weekly press conference, he did what would turn out to be a key offer: Republicans would abandon their insistence on corporate liability protection if the Democrats didn’t pursue billions for state and local governments.
It seemed like a surprising withdrawal from the Führer, who had said the issue was a “red line” for Republicans, and the Democrats initially flinched.
But Mr. McConnell had decided that he needed a deal and that time was running out. Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, two Republicans from Georgia, whose runoff elections will determine control of the Senate in January, have been harshly criticized for failing to provide further pandemic aid from Congress. Privately, the majority leader promised the senators that they would not leave for Christmas without a deal.
There was one more important person to convince: the president, who was busy denying his loss of the election for no reason.
At the White House, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham sat with the President of South Carolina to watch Mr. Trump award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to soccer coach Lou Holtz to inform him of the emerging bipartisan compromise.
“This bipartisan working group is your best route,” said the senator. Mr. Trump appeared to agree, and Mr. Graham returned to Capitol Hill to let reporters know that he was on board.
The centrists presented their final proposal on December 14, when the electoral college confirmed Mr Biden’s victory. The next morning after Mr. McConnell broke up with Mr. Trump and recognized Mr. Biden as President-Elect, Ms. Pelosi invited him, Mr. Schumer, and Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the President of the Republican House, to meet at their office .
As they gathered and their faces were hidden by masks, there was an initial slight sign of thawing in Ms. Pelosi’s Capitol Hill office suite, which was decorated with Christmas garlands.
Mr. McConnell insisted that Mr. Mnuchin be on the line. Republicans and Democrats have argued over the overall size of a package and each of its parts. At one point, Mr Schumer, who was fighting for transit finance from New York City, got so frustrated by a Republican transportation proposal that he threatened to pull the plug.
“If you’re there, I’ll be out of here,” he said.
Both sides were also under pressure from some of their own ranks to include another round of direct controls on Americans, a popular component of the previous stimulus package that the centrists group deliberately left out because it was not specifically targeted on those who did are unemployed. Mr Trump and Mr Mnuchin also urged the Treasury Secretary to work on the phones to soften skeptical Senate Republicans.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the progressive independent, had planned the emerging framework preventively, also because checks were not included. He closed the guns in the Senate with Josh Hawley of Missouri, a Conservative Republican.
In the House of Representatives, Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington and chairman of an influential bloc of 96 progressives, took a similar point of view. She had texted Ms. Pelosi in early December threatening that her group would reject the stimulus proposal if it did not include a direct payment.
“If we cannot point out how this package will benefit ordinary people, it will be very difficult for us to get on board,” wrote Ms. Jayapal.
When top executives left Ms. Pelosi’s office that evening, all four signaled that a deal could finally be struck, including $ 600 checks. Her aides strove to work out a new compromise, and there was little time before the government funds expired.
Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican from Pennsylvania, had other ideas. Less than 48 hours before the government was to shut down without a deal, Mr. Toomey, a fiscal hawk who had long tried to end a number of Federal Reserve emergency loan programs, stood firm on demand. The stimulus measure must not only end a number of programs the Fed created to help businesses and communities during the pandemic, but also prevent the central bank from developing such programs in the future.
The Democrats were outraged, accusing Mr Toomey of attempting to sabotage the incoming Biden government’s ability to respond to the economic turmoil.
But the Republicans gathered around Mr. Toomey, and the leaders of Congress agreed that they would have to add another day to government spending to buy time to resolve the new impasse.
They finally reached an agreement shortly before midnight after haggling on the floor and in Mr. Schumer’s suite. It was another 18 hours before Mr. McConnell entered the Senate and announced the deal.
By then, the moderates who started the process had been marginalized and had to wait and see if the stimulus efforts outperformed the odds. A few nights earlier, in a large Senate conference room, Mr. Manchin had opened a bottle of his West Virginia moonshine, which he likes to refer to as “farm fuel,” to toast whatever was to come.
“It took the enamel off my teeth,” said Mr Durbin. “But it tasted pretty good.”
Alan Rappeport and Jim Tankersley Contribution to reporting.