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A dinner, a deal and moonshine: How the US stimulus package came together

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By Nicholas Fandos, Luke Broadwater and Emily Cochrane

A week before Thanksgiving, a small group of moderate senators gathered in the spacious living room of Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s home on Capitol Hill to embark on what they considered an urgent assignment.

They were there — eating Tuscan takeout as they sat socially distanced, with the windows open to let the cold air circulate as a coronavirus precaution — to talk about how to get the Senate, polarized and paralyzed on nearly every issue, working again.

They were also determined to find a way to deliver a more immediate kind of relief, brainstorming how to break a monthslong partisan stalemate over providing a new round of federal aid to millions of Americans and businesses buckling under the economic weight of the coronavirus pandemic.

The stimulus deal they began discussing that evening ultimately showed that both were possible. In hatching the compromise, the centrists provided a backbone for the $900 billion relief measure that Congress approved late Monday. Perhaps just as important, they delivered a template for the kind of bipartisan deal-making that will be crucial to getting Congress to function again in the Biden era, when tiny majorities in both chambers will force the parties to find their way to the center to accomplish any major initiative.

“I think divided government can be an opportunity,” said Murkowski, R-Alaska. “How we take that up, how we choose to use it, is up to us.”

With President Donald Trump almost entirely absent from the talks, it took quiet prodding from President-elect Joe Biden, a month of frenzied negotiating by the moderates — on Zoom calls, in parking lots and over late-night sessions on Capitol Hill fueled by pizza and moonshine — intense bargaining by party leaders and several near-misses with a government shutdown to produce the final product. Two dozen lawmakers and aides described the legislative drive.

That November night at Murkowski’s house, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a former management consultant, had arrived ready with a proposal outlined on his iPad. But it was Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, whose presence at the gathering raised some eyebrows among the Republicans, who chimed in with the suggestion that set the tone.

Forget about a sweeping stimulus initiative, Durbin said. What we need here is a limited emergency plan to get the country through March.

“That was really what opened up the eyes of all of us,” Romney recalled.

Two hours away, in Wilmington, Delaware, a similar theory was taking shape among members of Biden’s transition team as they prepared to confront a public health and economic crisis. In order to give the president-elect a fighting chance when he takes office in January, they privately told Democrats, Congress needed to enact another stimulus plan to serve as a bridge until the new administration, even if it was much smaller than what ultimately would be needed.

The problem was, there was not much time to produce a deal.

Embracing his inner task master, Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., the self-styled ringleader of the effort with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, scheduled meetings over Thanksgiving, on weekends and late at night. Lawmakers broke into subgroups focused on the thorny issues that had divided the two parties for months: how to structure unemployment benefits, aid to states and cities, coronavirus liability protections, funds for school reopenings and other issues.

Drawing from a $1.8 trillion stimulus framework proposed weeks earlier by the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of centrist House members, and signals from party leaders, Manchin, Collins and several others quickly cobbled together an initial outline that they felt both parties could live with. It roughly split the differences between Democrats and Republicans, including items that both sides agreed on, but also two dueling priorities that had bedeviled their leaders: the liability shield that Republicans were demanding, and money that Democrats were insisting on for state and local governments whose revenue had collapsed in the economic crisis.

The haggling was intense and constant. Collins said she had never done so much texting before. “This was not an instance where members started it off and turned it over to staff,” she said.

During one Friday session, Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., the co-chairman of the Problem Solvers Caucus, called from his car and ended up spending hours in a convenience store parking lot hashing out sticking points.

“If America only knew that $1 trillion of policy was negotiated in the Sheetz parking lot,” Reed said.

Two weeks after dinner at Murkowski’s, they honed the initial $908 billion framework over slices of pizza in a large Senate hearing room and rushed to arrange a news conference for the next morning. They moved so quickly that the posters Manchin had ordered were not done by the time the event began.

The moderates did not know it, but Democratic leaders had been doing their own postelection recalibration after insisting for months that any deal less than $2 trillion was inadequate.

Three days after the dinner at Murkowski’s house, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader, had driven to Wilmington to meet with Biden and plan the year ahead. The president-elect’s message was plain.

“He knew we could not get everything now, but anything we could get would make his job easier when he became president,” Schumer said. “We agreed.”

When the moderates introduced their plan, the top Democrats saw their opportunity. They quickly embraced it as the easiest vehicle for jump-starting negotiations.

It was a major shift for the leaders, who had rejected Trump administration proposals twice as large, refusing to budge as the election approached even as they privately conceded that there was little momentum for a deal. During one call in late September, Pelosi had told Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that she had spent a sleepless night watching a rerun of “The Princess Bride,” the 1987 cult classic. She compared their negotiations to how Billy Crystal’s character, Miracle Max, describes a patient in the film who has been tortured to the brink of death, pronouncing them “mostly dead.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, was making his own reassessment but remained aloof in public as usual. Two days after the moderates unveiled their outline, Collins, Murkowski, Romney and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., met with McConnell in his spacious Capitol office suite to brief the leader on their plan.

He gave the lawmakers reason to be optimistic. What you have done is get Democrats off their $2 trillion dime and to re-engage, he told them. That is helpful.

A week went by, and McConnell began showing more openness to a deal. Speaking at his weekly news conference, he made what would prove to be a key offer: Republicans would drop their insistence on liability protections for businesses if Democrats would not pursue billions for state and local governments.

It appeared to be a surprising retreat by the leader, who had said the issue was a “red line” for Republicans, and Democrats initially balked.

But McConnell had concluded that he needed a deal and that time was running short. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, two Georgia Republicans whose runoff elections in January will determine control of the Senate, were being harshly criticized over Congress’ failure to deliver more pandemic relief. Privately, the majority leader promised the senators that they would not leave for Christmas without a deal.

There was still one important person to persuade: the president, who was preoccupied with baselessly contesting his election loss.

At the White House to watch Trump award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to football coach Lou Holtz, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., sat down with the president to sell him on the emerging bipartisan compromise.

“This bipartisan working group is your best way forward,” the senator told him. Trump seemed to agree, and Graham went back to Capitol Hill and relayed to reporters that he was on board.

The centrists introduced their final proposal on Dec. 14, just as the Electoral College was certifying Biden’s victory. The next morning, after McConnell broke with Trump and recognized Biden as the president-elect, Pelosi invited him, Schumer and Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican House leader, to meet in her office.

When they gathered, their faces obscured by masks, in Pelosi’s Capitol Hill office suite, trimmed with Christmas garlands, there was at first little sign of a thaw.

McConnell insisted that Mnuchin be on the line. Republicans and Democrats sparred over the overall size of a package and each of its parts. At one point, Schumer, who was fighting for New York City’s transit funding, grew so frustrated with a Republican transportation proposal that he threatened to pull the plug.

“If that’s where you’re at, I’m out of here,” he said.

Both sides were also under pressure from some in their own ranks to include another round of direct checks for Americans, a popular component of the previous stimulus bill, but one that the gang of centrists had deliberately decided to leave out because it did was not specifically targeted to those out of work. Trump and Mnuchin pushed, too, with the Treasury secretary working the phones to soften up skeptical Senate Republicans.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the progressive independent, had pre-emptively panned the emerging framework, in part because checks were not included. He locked arms in the Senate with Josh Hawley of Missouri, a conservative Republican.

In the House, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chairwoman of an influential bloc of 96 progressives, made a similar stand. She had texted Pelosi in early December, threatening that her group would oppose the stimulus proposal if it did not contain some form of direct payment.

“If we can’t point to how this package is going to benefit regular people, it’s going to be very difficult for us to get on board,” Jayapal wrote.

When top leaders left Pelosi’s office that night, all four signaled that a deal might at last be at hand, including $600 checks. Their aides scrambled to begin drafting an emerging compromise, with little time left before government funding was set to lapse.

Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., had other ideas. With less than 48 hours until the government was set to shut down without a deal, Toomey, a fiscal hawk who had long sought to end a series of the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending programs, stood firm on one demand. The stimulus measure must not only end an array of programs the Fed had created to help businesses and municipalities during the pandemic, he said, but also bar the central bank from creating anything like them in the future.

Democrats were incensed, accusing Toomey of trying to sabotage the ability of the incoming Biden administration to respond to the economic turmoil.

But Republicans rallied around Toomey, and congressional leaders agreed that they would need to extend government spending another day to buy time to resolve the new impasse.

They ultimately struck an agreement shortly before midnight, after haggling on the floor and in Schumer’s suite. It took another 18 hours before McConnell could walk onto the Senate floor and announce the deal.

By then, the moderates who kicked off the process had been relegated to the sidelines, left to wait and see if the stimulus effort could beat the odds. Several nights earlier, in a large Senate conference room, Manchin had opened a bottle of his West Virginia moonshine, which he likes to call “farm fuel,” to toast whatever was to come.

“It took the enamel off my teeth,” Durbin said. “But it tasted pretty good.”

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