After weeks of intense partisan bickering, the future of an economic stimulus package is in the hands of six men in a back room - especially one senator and one House member who count most when the pushes turn to shoves.
While partisanship and power brokers aren't anything new to Capitol Hill, consider this: Usually House and Senate dealmakers get together to resolve difference after each wing of Congress has passed a bill.
What's happening now, in an effort to lift the ailing economy, is a "virtual" House-Senate conference on a bill the Senate hasn't yet passed.
This outcome reflects two changes since Sept. 11: Initially, Congress rallied to pass newly urgent measures - enhancing the power of a few key leaders. Then, partisanship resurfaced as next year's elections began to loom larger.
Both parties have long said it is vital to craft measures that will help pull the economy back on track. But with passing weeks since Sept. 11, building consensus has grown more difficult.
Members are already fixed on who will control the House and Senate after 2002 elections. For partisan road warriors in both parties, chafing under post-attack bipartisanship, a breach over how to revive the economy soon widened into a chasm.
"There is a lot of pent-up partisan energy over the last couple of months that is playing out over the stimulus package," says Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst with the Hudson Institute.
Nowhere is that fault line more evident than in the tough talk between the Senate majority leader, Democrat Tom Daschle and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Bill Thomas (R) of California - men who will have to come to terms if a stimulus package is to pass.
Brilliant and easily riled, Mr. Thomas is a veteran of the darkest days of Democratic dominance in the House. He came to the House in 1978, at a time when Republicans had been out of power so long that few even remembered what it was like to chair a committee.
When he won chairmanship of the powerful tax-writing committee this year, he vowed there would be no more "playing the lackey."
Nor has he. To the consternation of Democrats, he has used his power to set agendas and schedule votes to pass through his committee deep tax cuts, most recently for businesses, often with the barest of consultations with the opposition party.
Thomas watchers perk up when the chairman begins a sentence with a high-pitched "I find it interesting that...." It means he's about to go off on a rampage.
On Friday, the object of Thomas's wrath was the US Senate - especially majority leader Daschle - for failing to pass a stimulus package some five weeks after the House passed its version. Earlier in the day, Mr. Daschle suggested that Republicans weren't serious about "dealing seriously with the issue of economic stimulus."
The chairman saw red.
"Some of us can't stomach the way the Senate operates, because it doesn't," he told a quickly convened press conference. "Since the Senate can't deal with reality, we thought perhaps it might be able to deal with virtual reality."
Thomas proposed setting up a "virtual conference." "Let's pretend [the Senate] passed a bill," he said. The deal would then be put up for a vote in both houses, with a commitment from the leadership that amendments would not be allowed.
Some congressional analysts were stunned by the new arrangement. The closest precedent is the first hundred days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's term, when enormous legislative packages sailed through the Congress with virtually no scrutiny, except by a handful of committee chairs and House and Senate leaders.
"That was an emergency situation, as this is," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "On the stimulus package, most members of Congress realize that the public expects them to produce, and if the normal mechanisms are not working, they may have to resort to extraordinary measures," he adds.
The final procedural agreement came only after hard negotiation, and was still evolving as the participants prepared to meet yesterday. On the eve of the first meeting, House Democrats warned that they agreed to participate only "because we believe so strongly in the need for passing worker relief stimulus" this year, but that their support "cannot be assumed."
On the Senate side, Mr. Daschle has a tougher assignment. Not only does he need to rally Democrats around key issues that will determine whether they hold onto the Senate, but he also needs to demonstrate statesmanship and support for the president at a time of national emergency.
In his early years in the Senate, Daschle made a study of then-Democratic leader George Mitchell, who managed to combine a softspoken style with knife-edged partisanship. Admirers and critics say that Daschle has managed the same.
Early in the 107th Congress, he lost a big vote on the tax cut after centrist Democrats endorsed President Bush's plan without consulting him. Since Democrats won control of the Senate, he has kept the caucus in tighter line and managed victories on issues like healthcare.
But the stimulus fight could be his toughest battle to date. The House stimulus plan is heavily weighted to tax cuts for business, and Senate Democrats are determined to see more spending for health benefits and unemployment insurance for workers. These will be defining issues in the 2002 elections.
"Neither side wants to be viewed as losing face or unengaged in the effort to come up with the stimulus package," Mr. Wittmann says.