Basement conversation, virtual handshake led to Manchin-Schumer deal

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin locked themselves in a basement room in the Capitol.

The two men struggled for more than a year in long, failed rounds of start-and-stop negotiations over President Joe Biden’s big package for rebuilding America. But the conversations had stalled – again. With the midterm elections approaching and 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 final ultimatum: Either scale back the ambitious proposal by dropping the climate change regulations that were so important to Biden and his party, or waiting until September to pass a bill, giving the economy’s shocking 9.1% inflation a chance to cool.

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

And Manchin faced his own political pressure. Outraged colleagues openly criticized his tactics as insincere, even whispering that the West Virginia senator should take off his gavel as committee chair. The coal-state conservative was publicly singled out, even shamed, as the only figure who stopped aid to a planet at risk.

Prior to the basement meeting, Manchin put a new offer on the table.

Details were meager that Monday afternoon 10 days ago, but the size and scope shocked Schumer’s team and, most importantly, included the commitment to vote for the August recess. This account belongs to several people who are familiar with the private conversations and have been given anonymity to discuss them.

The two men shook hands and agreed to talk again.

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

It was.

What happened next was a week-long negotiation, largely out of sight, to produce the surprise $739 billion package now headed for rapid 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 how often progress is made.”

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

The 725-page “Inflation Reduction Act of 2022” would cap out-of-pocket prescription drugs costs for seniors up to $2,000 per year, helping some 13 million families with grants to purchase their own health insurance. It invests $369 billion over the past ten years tax incentives to combat climate changeincluding $4,000 for used electric vehicles and $7,500 for new ones.

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

With Republicans firmly against, Democrats will need every senator in their 50-50 majority to secure passage, which gives Manchin — and every other senator, in fact — such a strong hand in the negotiations.

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

It almost didn’t happen.

Biden and Manchin had barely spoken since then negotiations have collapsed abruptly Late last year came a brutal end to the president’s once-big “Build Back Better” project, a proposal worth more than $4 trillion for infrastructure and family support investments.

The two had famously had personal, candid conversations, including once at the president’s childhood home in Delaware when Biden achieved a feat comparable to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, while Manchin always kept his cool at such a broad, far-reaching effort.

Despite months of talks, Manchin called it all off shortly before Christmas, much to the anger of colleagues and the White House, which publicly berated the senator for the collapse of Biden’s signature domestic proposal. Relations between the president and the senator were extremely tense.

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

All along, Manchin has maintained that he never ran away from conversations. He was still in touch with the White House, even spoke to Biden at times, and just didn’t want his Democratic Party to go overboard as he tried to rein in the president’s ambitious initiatives and keep spending down.

“My biggest concern was inflation,” Manchin said, referring to the high price of food and gas. “I hear about it every day.”

Manchin also maintained close relations with the Republicans, including: Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, who has publicly and privately encouraged Manchin to stay off the Democrats’ agenda. The Republican leader has openly mulled over potentially welcoming the conservative senator to the ranks of the GOP.

Just as negotiations appeared to be gaining ground in the run-up to the summer break, Manchin fell on hiatus again on July 14 as inflation fears resurfaced.

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

It was getting “hot and heated,” Manchin acknowledged.

Colleagues were outraged and even Manchin complained about their reaction.

“Then they let the dogs loose – that night, and said I’m against all these things,” he said.

Silently one senator after another reached for Manchin and tried to get him back to the table.

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

Coons listened and heard the senator outside as Manchin insisted that he never walk away from the table, despite the way it was portrayed.

The best way to show the naysayers that he still wanted a deal was to advise Coons that Manchin proposed the largest package he could possibly support.

When Manchin and Schumer stopped by in the hallways at the Capitol that Monday, they acknowledged that “sometimes our moods are a little bit faster,” 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, one of the people familiar with the conversations said.

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

When they reached the final agreement Wednesday afternoon, Schumer and Manchin shook hands again — a “virtual handshake,” as they called it — over the miles during a video call.

The senators informed the White House – Biden and Manchin spoke again.

The president and the senator, both isolating COVIDcompared symptoms.

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

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

“If you do the right thing and persevere, you will succeed,” Schumer said in brief comments in his office. “We persevered. Hopefully we will succeed.”

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

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