Feuds, Zoom and Italian food: How the stimulus got done

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Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) brought food — upscale Italian takeout — and wine as he tried to triangulate between Mnuchin and Pelosi’s number, thinking he could get Republicans to settle for something north of $1 trillion. He found no takers on the Republican side: Collins and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) argued $900 billion was as high as Republicans would go. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) concluded that they could sell the deal as an emergency package.

What then followed was a series of back-and-forth discussions in the “908 Coalition.” Just before Thanksgiving, the senators reached out to members of the House Problem Solvers Caucus about working together.

A half-dozen members in the Problem Solvers, including Phillips and co-chairs Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), tried earlier in the fall to pressure leadership with their own $1.5 trillion bipartisan plan.

That effort didn’t succeed. But the caucus had its own framework to bring to the table when they began joint conversations with the senators via calls and Zoom meetings held during the Thanksgiving break. As those efforts merged, members pointedly refused to call themselves a gang, which in recent years became a moniker denoting failure in the Senate.

The coalition eventually grew to more than 10 senators, after Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) joined. Romney and other Republicans had met privately with McConnell to explain their proposal, and McConnell did not discourage or encourage the centrist group’s talks, Romney said.

Portman, who attends McConnell’s leadership meetings, stayed in touch with McConnell’s staff. He said he was seeking input, not permission.

“I was trying to be sure that we ended with a product that was going to be useful,” Portman said. “We needed to know how far we could go.”

Over the next few weeks, the senators texted hundreds of times and spoke via Zoom frequently. Some members expressed frustration that party leaders did not mention their work in floor speeches announcing a final coronavirus relief agreement on Sunday night, even though they argue their model could provide a blueprint for negotiations under a Biden administration.

“It’s fair to say that we may give ourselves more credit than we deserve,” Romney said. “But we’re happy to have a sense of having accomplished something significant in a very difficult time.”

Perhaps the one hurdle they had not foreseen was an explosive battle over the Federal Reserve. The dust-up froze negotiations for several days.

“I thought Wednesday night we were finished. This monstrosity reared its head the next morning,” Pelosi recalled.

The Fed fiasco

On Friday morning, staffers told Schumer that Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s effort to limit the central bank from creating similar emergency lending programs to those established in the spring was the primary impediment to a deal. Toomey had long advocated for such language and wanted to make sure the emergency lending facilities were shut down.

Schumer cranked up a messaging campaign by dialing 10 members of his caucus to explain what Republicans were up to and to fight back. Everything stalled out.

After two days of stalemate, Toomey went to the Senate floor on Saturday afternoon to implore Democrats to make him a counteroffer. Watching in his office, Chris Van Hollen picked up the phone.

The Maryland Democrat worked with Toomey on the deficit reduction supercommittee in 2011 and thought he could at least directly engage with him, something no one had done. Toomey did not dismiss him out of hand.

The two senators then gathered on the Senate floor surrounded by colleagues. Van Hollen and Warner filed into the Schumer’s office. Shortly after, they were followed by others including Toomey, Romney and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a Toomey backer.

“It was a wild Saturday,” Warner said. “People went from losing their temper to … who’s going to really say that $900 billion in assistance is going to depend upon something that is significant but esoteric?”

In the end, the discussions revolved around one word: “similar.” Democrats thought Republicans were trying to tie the hands of Biden by hamstringing the Fed’s ability to deal with a crisis; Republicans thought Democrats wanted to use the Fed as an end-run around GOP resistance to money for states and cities.

Toomey had one last discussion with Schumer, and shortly before midnight on Saturday, aides announced the impasse was broken. Instead of “similar,” the legislation would bar the Fed from restarting the “same” facilities. The conservative Toomey said he would vote for the bill.

Finishing touches

Even after Senate negotiators settled the Fed standoff, it took days for the House and Senate to vote.

In the meantime, lawmakers furiously lobbied to ensure their pet projects were included in a $2.3 trillion, 5,593-page coronavirus relief and government funding package.

One issue that increased in urgency was ensuring pandemic-related business loans were tax deductible. When House Republicans found out Sunday morning during a private conference call with Mnuchin that the fix was not going to be included, they were outraged.

Nearly a dozen members, including House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, made clear it was unacceptable. Mnuchin went back to the negotiating table, and hours later, word trickled down that the provision made the final cut.

“For many members, it was a deal-breaker,” Scalise (R-La.) said in an interview.

Pelosi, too, was busy closing things out. In a flurry of phone calls with Republican leaders on Sunday — two with McConnell, five with Mnuchin — she secured roughly $38 billion in worker-related tax credits, funding for water infrastructure projects and international vaccine distribution.

And while Congress finally passed a deal after months of delay, Democrats are vowing that this latest agreement will not be the last. McConnell, meanwhile, said he is taking a wait and see approach. But he expects to see another proposal from the Biden administration in the near future — and isn’t planning to give up his push for the liability shield that Democrats detest.

“I have no diminished desire to achieve that,” McConnell said. “I’m going to be taking the same view.”

Melanie Zanona and Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.

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