Basement talk, virtual handshake led to Manchin-Schumer deal

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin secreted themselves in a basement room at the Capitol.

The two men had been wrestling for more than a year in long, failed rounds of start-and-stop negotiations over President Joe Biden’s big rebuilding America package. But talks had jammed up — again. With the midterm elections near, control of Congress at stake, the president and his party were at the end of the line.

Just four days earlier, Manchin had issued his latest ultimatum: Either scale back the ambitious proposal by dropping the climate change provisions that were so important to Biden and his party, or wait until September to try to pass any bill at all, giving the economy’s shocking 9.1% inflation a chance to cool.

With all avenues with his colleague exhausted, Schumer signaled to Biden they needed to do whatever they could before lawmakers left town for the summer break. From the White House, Biden had announced that it was time to make a deal.

And Manchin faced his own political pressures. Outraged colleagues openly criticized his tactics as insincere — whispering, even, that the West Virginia senator should have his gavel taken away as a committee chairman. The coal state conservative was being publicly singled out, shamed even, as the sole figure stopping help for a planet in peril.

Ahead of the basement meeting, Manchin put a new offer on the table.

Details were slim that Monday afternoon 10 days ago, but the size and scope shocked Schumer’s team and, most importantly, included the commitment to vote by the August recess. This account is from several people familiar with the private conversations, and granted anonymity to discuss them.

The two men shook hands, and agreed to start talking — again.

“What a beautiful office,” Schumer wondered aloud in the Capitol basement room. “Is it mine?”

It was.

What happened next was a weeklong negotiation, largely out of sight, to produce the $739 billion surprise package now headed for quick votes in Congress.

Biden praised the deal Thursday as a “godsend” for American families.

“This bill is far from perfect,” Biden said from the White House. “It’s a compromise. But that’s often how progress is made.”

He thanked Schumer and Manchin for the “extraordinary effort that it took to reach this result.”

The 725-page “Inflation Reduction Act of 2022” would cap out-of-pocket prescription drug costs for seniors to $2,000 a year, and help some 13 million families with subsidies to purchase their own health insurance policies. It invests $369 billion over the decade on tax incentives to fight climate change, including $4,000 for used electric vehicles and $7,500 for new ones.

The package is paid for largely by imposing a 15% minimum tax on corporations earning more than $1 billion a year and by allowing the federal government to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies for lower costs. Leftover savings, some $300 billion, will go to pay down deficits.

With Republicans solidly opposed, Democrats will need every senator in their 50-50 majority to ensure passage, which is what gives Manchin — and every other senator, in fact — such a strong hand in negotiations.

Manchin in a conference call Thursday with reporters called the final product a “win-win.”

It almost didn’t happen.

Biden and Manchin had barely spoken since negotiations abruptly collapsed late last year, a brutal end to the president’s once expansive “Build Back Better” project, a more than $4 trillion proposal of infrastructure investments and family support.

The two had famously engaged in personal, candid conversations, including once at the president’s family home in Delaware as Biden reached for an achievement on par with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, while Manchin always remained cool to such a broad, far-reaching effort.

Despite months of talks, Manchin called it all off shortly before Christmas, enraging colleagues and and the White House, which publicly scolded the senator for the collapse of Biden’s signature domestic proposal. Relations between the president and the senator were beyond strained.

Instead, Schumer took over working with Manchin in the new year, as the White House outsourced the negotiations back to Capitol Hill. The Democratic leader from New York had to slow down, steadily trying to rebuild the talks around a smaller but still substantial package Manchin would support.

All along, Manchin has insisted he never walked away from any talks. He was still in touch with the White House, even talking at times with Biden, and simply did not want his Democratic Party to go overboard as he tried to rein in the president’s ambitious initiatives and keep spending down.

“My main concern was inflation,” Manchin said, citing the high price of food, gas. “I hear about it every day.”

Manchin also kept close relations with Republicans, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who has publicly and privately encouraged Manchin to steer away from the Democrats’ agenda. The Republican leader has openly mused about potentially welcoming the conservative senator into the ranks of the GOP.

Just as negotiations appeared to be gaining ground ahead of the summer recess, Manchin again hit pause on July 14, as inflation fears spiked anew.

“I just couldn’t do it,” Manchin told Schumer.

It got “hot and heated,” Manchin acknowledged.

Colleagues were livid, and even Manchin complained about their reaction.

“That’s when they turned the dogs loose — that night, saying I’m against all this stuff,” he said.

Quietly, one senator after another reached out to Manchin, trying to bring him back to the table.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a Biden ally, paid a visit to Manchin’s office, as did others, according to an aide familiar with the private talks. Lawrence Summers, the former Clinton administration economic adviser, called Manchin to discuss the senator’s inflation worries.

Coons listened, hearing the senator out as Manchin insisted he never walked away from the table, despite the way it was being portrayed.

The best way to show the naysayers he still wanted a deal, Coons counseled, was for Manchin to propose the biggest package he possibly could support.

When Manchin and Schumer passed in the halls that Monday at the Capitol, they acknowledged “our tempers get a little bit ahead of us at times,” Manchin said.

“Let’s recalibrate,” Manchin suggested.

The two met that Monday afternoon in the basement conference room, which had no windows but did have a mural of the Capitol building, one of the people familiar with the talks said.

After they emerged with the handshake agreement, they spent the next week and a half working on the package, even when Manchin had to stay in West Virginia after testing positive for COVID.

Upon reaching the final agreement Wednesday afternoon, Schumer and Manchin shook hands again — a “virtual handshake,” as they called it — across the miles on a video call.

The senators briefed the White House — Biden and Manchin were speaking again.

The president and the senator, both isolating from COVID, compared symptoms.

Schumer met one-on-one with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in his office and then briefed his fellow senators.

“It’s been a momentous 24 hours,” Schumer said as he closed out the Senate late Thursday looking ahead to next week’s votes.

“If you’re doing the right thing and persist, you’ll succeed,” Schumer said in brief remarks in his office. “We persisted. Hopefully we’re going to succeed.”

___ Associated Press writer Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

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