Senator Ben Nelson rushed off the elevator on the second floor of the U.S. Capitol and immediately 20 or so reporters took off in hot pursuit. "I'm late for the vote," Nelson called over his shoulder. "I'll come back out."
When he did return five minutes later, reporters hardly let him step over the threshold into the hall, thrusting dozens of digital recorders in his face, shuffling together as sentries made a path for other, less in-demand Senators to come and go. The stocky Nebraskan took it all in with a garden-gnome grin, patiently deflecting questions with an easy charm.
"Senator, is your coalition growing at all?"
"Ha ha ha. I wish."
"What is the majority leader saying to you guys?"
"He's saying 'Giddy up,' " Nelson quipped, to chuckles.
"Will you draw Republican votes?"
"There are people on the other side of the aisle who want to be for something, and we're trying to deliver something for them to be for," the Democrat deadpanned to more laughter. (Read "What Is Real Stimulus and What Isn't?")
This is President Barack Obama's ambassador to the right, the self-described moderate who has been here before. In 2005 he led the so-called Gang of 14 seven centrist Republicans and seven centrist Democrats to a compromise that avoided a Senate meltdown known as the "nuclear option" over President Bush's judicial appointments. In 2008 he guided the Gang of 10's work on a compromise regarding offshore drilling. And this week the two-term Senator has been spearheading a group of negotiators to find a bipartisan solution on the more than $900 billion stimulus bill. Nelson won't provide an exact number of Senators involved in these talks, coyly trying to avoid yet another gang label. (Enterprising reporters have counted conferees going in there are 18, including six Republicans.) The talks dragged on well into Thursday evening, and they could yield a legislative victory for Obama as early as today in the Senate. (Read "How to Spend a Trillion Dollars.")
The moderates are united in their disdain for what they consider extraneous spending in the massive economic package, which most Republicans are unwilling to support. Nelson and his Republican partner, Maine Senator Susan Collins, compiled a list all of the programs in which the Congressional Budget Offices estimated that less than 10% of funds would be spent in the first 18 months. From that list they selected about $100 billion in programs, mostly in education, state aid and science that, while perhaps worthy pursuits, they don't believe belong in the stimulus bill. At the same time, the coalition has also agreed to add another $30 billion in infrastructure spending that the group does see as stimulative.
Nelson says these talks, aimed at winning the backing of a filibuster-proof majority of at least 60 senators, have been the most complex he's engaged in. "The Gang of 14 was focused on a particular target, and that was to avoid the nuclear option," Nelson said in an interview with TIME. "Here, not everybody is supportive of a stimulus package to begin with, and all of us have questions about the amount and what's in the package. When that's the case, the number of differing opinions that you have multiplies."
The biggest sticking point for the moderate gang has been whether the Federal Government should grant states aid for education. "As a former governor, I didn't like it when [the Federal Government meddled with education] because they never funded it completely," Nelson said. "I'm prepared to make some adjustment in my attitude toward that if we can be sure that whatever we do on the federal level is temporary."
And therein lies the nature of the yet-to-be-finalized compromise: the group might tolerate some form of education funding for cash-strapped states as long as it doesn't create a new permanent mandate. "The challenge is to bring enough Republicans over to make it bipartisan, given some differences of opinion about education being in the bill," Nelson said. "But what we would hope is that both the Democrats and the Republicans decide that it is the best interest of the country to develop a consensus where everybody gives and everybody takes some."
On this point, Nelson has found a kindred spirit in Obama, who hosted the Nebraska Senator for a one-on-one meeting in the Oval Office on Wednesday. (Senator Collins had a similar meeting on Wednesday as well with the President.) On the table was not just passing a bill with the prerequisite 60 Senate votes to overcome the threat of a filibuster but establishing a mutual preoccupation with a durable centrist coalition. Obama "is interested in partnership here," Nelson said. "And for us to truly have a partnership, we're going to have to have people on both sides of the aisle on this issue and on the next issue and the issue thereafter. He recognizes that getting input from everybody makes a great deal of sense even though ultimately there may be 59 Democratic votes. But he knows that just picking off a Republican to get your 60 votes is not bipartisan enough for what we want to do here."
The President may well know that, but he also knows that Congress has to act quickly, especially with another round of dismal economic and unemployment numbers coming out Friday. After spending much of his first two weeks in office reaching out to Republicans, Obama showed a tougher side on Thursday, telling House Democrats at a retreat in Virginia that Republicans who have been pushing amendments to add more and more tax cuts to the legislation want to return "to the same policies that for the last eight years doubled the national debt and threw our economy into a tailspin." His growing frustration with the stalemate was echoed by Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who insisted that the bargaining could only go on for so long before he would bring the package to the floor for a vote. "As I have explained to people in that group, they cannot hold the President of the United States hostage," said Reid. "If they think they're going to rewrite this bill and Barack Obama is going to walk away from what he is trying to do for the American people, they've got another thought coming."
Nelson first started thinking about gathering a group together last week as he became increasingly appalled by the contents of the Senate bill. "I thought, 'Whoa, there needs to be jobs, jobs, jobs,'" Nelson said. He approached his old friend Collins, and the two met over coffee in Nelson's offices on the 7th floor of the Hart Senate Office Building Friday morning. There they agreed to explore interest among "some of our colleagues in a process of scrubbing and changing, reducing the amount of the package so it wouldn't be a runaway tsunami of spending," Nelson said. The two asked for volunteers at the weekly lunches held by both parties on Tuesday and have spent the past 56 hours sitting around the negotiating table.
Senate majority leader Reid's spokesman Jim Manley said that while Reid supports the process Nelson is spearheading, there's a chance that some items that may fall out of the bill because of the compromise, such as the education provisions, could be reinserted in negotiations with the House over the final version. Nelson is aware of the risk but plans to fight tooth and nail to protect his deal. "The President wants bipartisan support," he noted. "And to get it, you have to maintain something comparable to what we're talking about."
After communing with five of his staff members, Nelson left to vote on another amendment the fifth of 13 Thursday evening. Upon returning, he gave another impromptu press conference. Wearily, he ran a hand through his thick head of hair.
"From this experience that I've had, the majority leader never has to worry about me challenging him for that position," he bemoaned to laughter.
"Twenty people in the room is ...?"
"Too much," Nelson said with a sigh, but he quickly snapped out of his momentary lag. "The White House is supporting our efforts because they know that this is the way to get something that's bipartisan," he added. "There isn't any other way to get something that's bipartisan unless you're working to achieve it. It doesn't happen on its own around here."