During John Boehner’s speakership, when a vote on a massive spending bill was around the corner, he’d often be holed up in his office, trying to figure out how to persuade Republicans to avoid a government shutdown.
But on Thursday night, with such a vote about 12 hours away, Paul Ryan wasn’t in the Capitol. He and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy were at a central table in the dimly lit BLT Steak restaurant, blocks from the White House, having a good time. They were eating steaks, drinking red wine and chatting with allies like Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry and Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin. The mood was so loose, McCarthy and Ryan took a selfie with a fellow lawmaker.
At the time, the Republican and Democratic vote counts were ticking up, the result of Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi working their respective conferences throughout the week. At one point, Ryan slipped out of the restaurant to take a call, locking down an extra vote. Pelosi, meanwhile, worked late into the night to head off a Democratic uprising against provisions ranging from oil exports to the lack of aid for the debt-stricken Puerto Rico.
The spending and tax bills, which sailed through both chambers Thursday and Friday, mark a sharp break stylistically from the big fiscal battles of recent years. There was no showdown between House Republican leaders and the right, no last-minute meltdowns; instead, Ryan told his rank-and-file members up front they didn’t have much leverage and he’d have to make compromises they wouldn’t like.
Substantively, though, Democrats continued to exploit the ideological rift within the House Republican Conference. They won significant concessions even though the GOP controls both chambers of Congress. That was the case under Boehner, and it happened this time, too.
In the end, the four leaders — Ryan, Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — were all able to tout wins. There were complaints from the right about high levels of spending and gripes from the left about aiding Big Oil, but each side got enough in return to pass the deal in overwhelming fashion.
The vote totals weren’t close. The House passed the spending bill 316-113, with all but 18 Democrats voting for the package. It cleared the Senate 65-33.
This account of how the deal — likely the biggest package of legislation Congress will take up before the next president takes office — came together is based on interviews with roughly a dozen key lawmakers and aides over the past two weeks.
Ryan’s admission from the get-go that Republicans couldn’t and wouldn’t get all that they wanted was key to notching one major victory for the GOP: Lifting a decades-old ban on exporting crude oil. He centered the entire negotiation around it.
“In these negotiations, he’s been very careful to be honest and not oversell and overpromise,” said Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.). “And I do think that’s something members recognize, as well, because it’s easy to tell people what they want to hear, but it’s much more important to tell them what is more likely to happen. … It does at least help build more trust.”
Democratic leaders knew that lifting the oil export ban would be seen as a giveaway to Big Oil, and that they’d need to secure a lot in return to get their members to go along. Their biggest demand was renewable energy tax credits, critical to the Senate minority leader’s solar-heavy state of Nevada.
The tradeoff, though, led to some tense moments on both sides of the Capitol. On Wednesday morning, Pelosi joked in a closed party meeting that backing a bill with the oil provision was like saying, “But for that, did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”
Reid, meanwhile, believed McConnell was shortchanging him on the renewable energy tax credits. Sitting in his office with top aides, the retiring Democratic leader threatened to pull out of the negotiations. He stormed into a conference room where one of his aides was speaking with Hazen Marshall, McConnell’s top policy staffer, and said, “My patience has ended.”
“If you guys don’t get serious, I’m walking away,” Reid said.
In an era when back-room dealing is often seen by party hard-liners as treason, the congressional leaders employed plenty of it this month. Ryan demanded the bill include a freeze on proposed regulations to limit political spending by nonprofit groups. In exchange for that, Pelosi scored long-stalled reforms to boost the International Monetary Fund.
And while the White House simply wanted Republicans to drop their push for policy provisions dealing with issues like abortion and Syrian refugees in return for lifting the oil export ban, Reid demanded — and received — more, including solar tax credits.
Other trades, though, were deemed too much. The two sides discussed rolling back new requirements on financial advisers in exchange for a provision to help Caesars Palace, but that discussion went nowhere.
And each of the congressional leaders was unable to score his or her top priority. Pelosi lost her bid to help financially wracked Puerto Rico. McConnell could not ease coordination rules for political groups. Reid’s Caesars Palace proposal was excluded. And Ryan’s was unable to insert language in the deal sought by abortion opponents.
Democrats also repeatedly rebuffed Ryan’s efforts to tighten restrictions on refugees from Syria and Iraq. He had to settle on a bipartisan proposal to crack down on visa-free travel.
Ryan handled these negotiations much more differently than his predecessor did. Where Boehner would promise to fight tooth and nail, Ryan was perhaps more realistic about what he could get. Boehner made every funding fight seem like a battle royale, while Ryan deliberately downplayed the negotiations in public.
As Pelosi and Ryan worked on the deal, they forged a relationship on the fly. The two hadn’t spoken much during Ryan’s 17 years in Congress: He was on the Ways and Means Committee, Pelosi was an appropriator.
On Dec. 11, they sat down for more than two hours in the Capitol over steak and fries. The two discussed policy, family and their jobs. There was only brief talk about the budget, but Ryan told Pelosi he wanted language in the bill to strengthen protections for organizations and doctors who oppose providing abortion, in addition to the so-called fiduciary rule, which would relax restrictions on financial advisers.
Pelosi responded that Republicans would be on their own if that was his position. Ryan said he knew he would get “zero” of those riders in, making the zero with his fingers.
Throughout the next week, Pelosi and Ryan spoke often. Ryan rejected Pelosi’s efforts to lift a ban on government research of gun violence, and later told the California Democrat he couldn’t include language addressing Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy in the bill, because he didn’t want to big-foot the Judiciary Committee’s jurisdiction over the issue.
They eventually agreed to helping the U.S. territory in separate legislation early next year. Shortly before the vote Friday, Ryan was seen walking with his arm around New York Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a Puerto Rican native especially upset by the speaker’s decision to keep the language out of the spending bill. Velazquez voted yes.
Ryan and Pelosi even closely coordinated their public statements, to calm nerves in their ranks. Pelosi asked Ryan to make a public statement on acting to help the U.S. territory, and he obliged.
But much of Ryan and Pelosi’s time was spent negotiating how to craft the package — which provisions should go in the budget vs. tax bills to smooth passage and keep everyone happy. Hours before the 2,009-page bill was released, Ryan told Pelosi the oil-export ban needed to be in the omnibus, so the bill would attract GOP votes. Pelosi asked Ryan to put the renewable tax credits in the spending bill instead of the tax bill to help attract Democratic support.
But Ryan rebuffed Pelosi’s efforts to reopen negotiations on parts of the bill, for fear it would mean relitigating the entire package.
Is this a new era of bipartisanship? It’s doubtful. Big-ticket legislating is unlikely to resume until late next year at the earliest. And while Ryan has certainly been given more leeway by hard-liners in his conference than Boehner had, he did feel like he was on the defensive about his dinner with Pelosi.
At one point, he told her he had to “defend having dinner with you.”
Pelosi replied, “Tell them you tried to poison me, but I had the antidote.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.
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