It was scary walking into that last Congressional negotiating session, the Joint Conference, knowing that we owned the room, at least on our issues.
Michael, Wellington, Tom and I all came in separately, me from standing with the hoi polloi, the great unwashed in the line snaking down along the corridor. I’d had Larry, my linestander, holding a place for me, but only got into the room thanks to him instead of my connections. Michael scurried in with a block of staffers, deep enough in a conversation with the Subcommittee Chief of Staff that he slid by the guard; Tom with Sen. VanderMeer; and Wellington, well, Wellington just walked right in the door, greeting the guard by name based on some utterly unknown connection he’d made somewhere over the years. Weller knew the cops on the Hill the way that I knew the secretaries; he’d encountered them during his private, after-hours briefings for senior members of the House and Senate, learned their names, tracked their careers. And those intel connections of his seemed truly priceless, presumably on people’s natural assumption that, unless you were Valerie Plame, once you were in the spy business you were never out of the spy business.
I might have pulled the same trick, of course, if my good buddy Will Richardson hadn’t gone and gotten himself forced out of the House for philandering. And I certainly recognized the symbolism of finding myself back in line, my Dungan work designated for the Conference trash heap, me dropped a couple of notches down on the Washington totem pole.
The room was small, like most rooms that Conference Committees were held in, and mercifully open to the public. Congress had long gone in spurts, alternatively keeping these kinds of meetings open when public outcry over earmarks forced them to, and keeping them closed once the outcry faded. This year, like most recent ones, the doors were flung so the public could see what Congress was doing. If anyone from the public – as opposed to us lobbyists – were actually to get into the room, they’d have no idea what was happening. But they would, nonetheless, be there.
From where I was sitting, in the back row, angled so that I could watch Toby Kelton and Alexis Chase, I didn’t see anyone in the room I didn’t recognize. There were only about 30 open seats, and most of them had been filled by people sneaking in the room the way Michael, Tom and Weller had. Along with Mourad, the only foreign embassy official who’d made it, I was one of six people who’d gotten in the old-fashioned way, the others coming, from the looks of them, from various law and lobbying firms around town. No one I knew, and no one I recognized from Harry’s fundraiser. Folks from Shaddock Mills had to be there somewhere, but I couldn’t tell yet which ones they were.
Roger had called me at around 2:00 p.m. on the time and location of the meeting: 7:30 p.m. in a small House Appropriations Subcommittee room down in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building. We’d been expecting the Conference to come this night, and I’d dispatched my linestander – on call in the House-side Longworth Cafeteria since early morning – to get the line started. My guy got there fourth, good enough to get me in the room but disturbingly close to that locked-out seventh position in line. That meant that several calls had gone out before I heard about it, and ever since arriving at 6:30 that evening – just in case things started early – I’d been memorizing the faces around me while chatting with Mourad. I didn’t know any of them, and he didn’t either, but then again it wasn’t the lawyers who were making trouble for Morocco; it was the human rights weenies, the ones still trapped in the hall in that now unmoving line.
At 8:15 p.m., when they finally opened the doors after an unexplained delay, we’d pushed into the room, scattering to the seats in the back. The Members, staff and hangers-on who’d squeezed in ahead of us were gathered around the Conference table talking quietly, deep in conversation as the lobbyists sought that last-minute, last-ditch maneuver that might squeeze another million out of the bill. Most of them are doomed to failure, I thought, waiting quietly in the back. Somewhere in that sea of people, though, there was undoubtedly a little piece of magic being worked on some issue that no one would ever hear of.
Looking to the crowd, I found Michael, on the other side of the room, working it hard. It was times like these that I remembered how good he was, and why I’d been able to learn so much in so short a time. He was breezily chatting up just about everyone in the room, catching them all. It was the skill that separated him from the rest of us, and it was fun to watch.
Weller came over to greet me. He looked comfortable, relaxed. “Not a bad year, Ed. We’re almost done.”
“This isn’t ending the way I wanted it to, Weller.”
“Nothing ever does, Edward.” He smiled down at me, caring in his eyes. “Listen, every year we think that we’re out fighting for our clients, saving them from something bad, protecting them, protecting America. That’s what it feels like from the inside. But over time, those years all slip by, pile up one after another, and the tide of history sweeps away whatever we’ve done or whatever we haven’t.
“We’re all just pieces of a puzzle that can never be completed, because the edges keep moving and reshaping and none of us ever fit together the same way twice. That’s us as a company, it’s you in the company, and it’s your Dungan.” He looked over at the Conference table, at the members, the staff, the suits, all clustered around it, maneuvering to get a last word in edgewise, a last bit of something. He continued, “Hell, it’s all our clients.”
Once again, Weller had improved my mood, not for the reasons he thought, but it had worked nonetheless. No matter what we did tonight, it wasn’t the end of the world. Life would go on.
As Weller spoke, I’d been watching Tom, who was slowly working his way through the House Republicans gathering at the table. He was noticeably stiffer than Michael, but received by his targets with somewhat more appreciation: there aren’t nearly as many Republican foreign aid groupies as there are Democrats, so they tend to be more warmly received when they make an appearance.
I waited until he closed in on Rep. Matthew Gunderson, Ranking Minority Member for the Subcommittee. I excused myself from Weller and joined him.
“Hello, Tom,” I said as he noticed my approach. Sliding next to him, I extended my hand to the Congressman. “Rep. Gunderson, so good to see you again. Ed Matthews. I haven’t seen you since your event last May.” Fundraiser, that was, another in a long line, this one comparatively cheap at only $500.
He clearly had no idea who I was, but responded warmly anyway. Finally, I thought, a tiny touch of value out of a political contribution. “Of course, Ed, so good to see you again.”
“I just wanted to say how impressed I am – we all are,” I said, reaching out toward Tom to bring him in – “of the way you’ve stuck to Republican Party principles in this year’s debates.” Gunderson beamed, and looked to Tom with a big smile. I continued, speaking slowly so he’d pick up on every word. “Your work in promoting American ideals, and especially promoting freedom of religion around the globe, are an example” – now he was looking back to me again, his face clouding just a little – “for all of us to follow. You should be proud for sticking by your principled approach.”
Gunderson looked down to the floor, but Tom agreed with a grin. “Ed’s right on point, Congressman. We are proud of the kind of work you’ve been doing.”
Gunderson looked up over his glasses. “Thanks. Really.” He looked directly at me and nodded, and then turned brusquely toward the table behind him. “I, uh, have to review my notes before we start.”
Tom backed away with an “of course,” but I remained where I was, just for those few extra seconds, without taking my eyes off him. Gunderson didn’t look back, but I figured he could sense me there.
As I walked back toward my chair, Tom took hold of my arm. “Thanks. That was really nice of you.”
“No problem, Tom,” I said. I never would have gotten away with that with Weller or Michael, I thought. Tom’s political blinders gave him a kind of childlike faith, especially in his colleagues. “Sometimes you just need to let people know you’re paying attention.”
* * *
“Mr. Chairman, I believe that the levels of funding being proposed for the African Development Bank are simply too low.”
There were thirty ceiling tiles across, but I kept losing count of the tiles running down the length of the room. The more I tried to concentrate, the more my eyes would experience some kind of weird whiteout phenomenon where the lines ran together. Maybe it was the horrifically bad fluorescent lighting, and maybe it was just declining vision due to age, but I just couldn’t seem to get the right number.
Rep. Jennings, a Congressional Black Caucus member, was speaking, droning on and on in a losing battle to increase the levels of funding for the ADB, the African Development Bank, one of a sea of such multilateral development institutions funded around the world. Their funding was off a little this year, I was assuming because of an increase in funding for the African Development Foundation – with which, of course, the ADB was not to be confused. Jennings must have had someone in his district, and maybe even someone in the room, someone who was big with the ADB, because he’d be chewing on this bone for about half an hour.
It was already 10:00 p.m., and we were still stuck in first of the many sections of the bill, on the multilaterals. This wasn’t a good sign.
“Mr. Chairman, I’d like to suggest that we take a brief break. Perhaps we can work this out.” It was Toby Kelton, in what was a peculiarly Congressional way of begging for mercy. A couple of them probably wanted to take Jennings out and beat some sense into him, but they’d satisfy themselves with cornering him in the Committee offices, just down the hall, and telling him that he’d fought long and hard and his constituent should be convinced that he was going down with the ship, fighting the good fight, but would he please shut the FUCK UP and let the Conference move on?
“The Committee is in recess for 30 minutes,” the Chair replied.
Thank you, Jesus, I thought, most likely along with the other 30 or so Administration officials, lobbyists, and lawyers still in the room. I stood and stretched, stifling a yawn as my back and shoulders creaked. God, I was getting too old for this.
As I grappled with my advancing age, Kenny Thurgood walked over with his hand outstretched. “Hi, Ed,” he said with a broad grin. “This is terrific. I’m so glad you suggested that I attend the Conference.”
“Don’t worry, it will get better,” I said, turning toward him out of a twist. A little frown started to form as he reacted to my words. Ah, he’s serious, I thought; he’s been enjoying this. “I mean, the debates get even more interesting as the night goes on.” In point of fact, that was only true if one took hard-core hallucinogenics, but I figured the kid probably never saw Fantasia and wouldn’t get that joke.
He smiled again. “Great. I’m looking forward to it.”
I’d convinced Kenny to attend the entire conference, telling him it was a chance to see how the worst of the process worked.
I glanced around us. There were a lot of people milling aimlessly, but no one near who mattered to our plans. Or to mine. Seeing Adam Childress standing over by his new boss, I waved, and pointed him out to Kenny.
Kenny grinned at Adam, who smiled back. Well, I didn’t get the smile, I thought, but that’s okay – Kenny’s my guy.
“Is your boss going to hang around all night?”
“He’s in the office,” Kenny responded. “Right about now he’s taking a nap on the couch, but he’s sticking around.”
From out of the corner of my eye, I saw Michael by the door, signaling. It was time to catch up. “Thanks, Kenny.” Pointing at Michael, I put a fatherly hand on Kenny’s shoulder and said, “I have to run. The boss calls. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Oh, no, don’t let me get in your way,” he said, moving back to let me pass. This guy is too nice, I thought with a smile as I moved by him.
In the hall, Michael, Tom and Weller were gathered. Michelle was also there, looking mighty grumpy. She hadn’t gotten into the room yet – the line was way too long, so she’d waited out in the halls until we could find a way to sneak her in. Even I had to admit there were few things more boring than waiting in the hall outside a Committee meeting.
“What do we have?” Michael asked.
“VanderMeer tells me that the MNNA amendment is agreed to,” Tom replied. “One year, life of the bill.”
“I’ve got the same from Alexis and Roger,” I added. “Peter told me the same thing, but he may have gotten it from Alexis.”
While the Conferees were technically still working on the first section of the bill, the action was in fact well beyond that. Most bills, and especially appropriations bills, were pre-negotiated by staffs before they even get to the open Conference Committee meeting. With appropriations, it was made easier by the fact that 95 percent of the bill is the same as the prior year’s bill, just with different numbers. Then there was a bunch of miscellaneous provisions, like our UAE MNNA amendment; these got negotiated out like children divvying out Halloween candy: one for the Senate, one for the House, one for the Senate, one for the… So this ten-hour Conference we were working our way through was something of a set piece, with maybe ten or twelve serious disagreements – with the big one this year being Iraqi reconstruction money – and the rest of the time spent speechifying a-la-Jennings and the ADB.
Weller looked to me with the thinnest smile on his lips. “You’ll be here to confirm that in the morning?”
I nodded. Weller glanced at Michael, who also nodded. Turning to Michelle, Weller said, “Do you want to take my place?”
“No,” she said, “I think I’ll go too.”
I shook my head, and must have snorted, because she turned to glare at me. As Weller walked away, Michelle paused, staring at me for another moment, and then trotted down the corridor after him.
Michael went on. “I’ve seen the Famagusta language they’ve agreed to; that’s fine. So right now, we’re batting 1.000.”
“There is that little, um, Koliba kind of thing,” I reminded him. Tom was looking particularly glum – we’d seen the language in two or three different versions, and they were all awful. But there was nothing there to prohibit his $20 million from going forward, which I assumed was what Michael meant. Tom, though, was still taking all the anti-Koliba vitriol personally.
“Koliba’s getting his money.” Michael said. Tom blanched, and looked around: that was secret money, after all.
“So we’re batting .800, I guess,” I replied. With a thin smile. Waiting for a moment, I stuck in the dagger. “And then there’s the Dungan.”
Like a shot, Michael’s face went red. “The Dungan language is out, and that’s where it’s staying.”
“I know, Michael.” I felt strangely calm, even for me. Partially it was the fact that I’m come to grips with the Dungan mess, and partially it was the way I more and more responded to Michael’s anger, going deeper inside myself. “I know.”
“Just don’t fuck with me.” He jammed his finger in my face. “Don’t forget – I warned you that bastard Harry couldn’t be trusted.”
“Okay, okay, but I still read it that we’re batting .600.”
Still red – in fact, maybe even just a touch redder, if that was possible without a cardiac event – Michael turned and headed down the hall in the direction of the bathrooms. Or maybe just the long walk. Either way, I thought, maybe I should tone down the baiting just a little bit.
I turned around. It was Michelle, halfway down the hall, standing alone. “Got a minute?”
“Sure.” I walked over to her, curious. She waited for me to get close.
“I never wanted to be you.”
“What?” She’d caught me; I wasn’t expecting that. I’d had no idea what to expect, but whatever it was, it wasn’t that.
“I wanted to work with you guys because you’re the best in your business,” she continued, earnest for once. There was something of a ferocity in her eyes, rather than the utter indifference I’d come to expect. “But that doesn’t mean I want to be you. I just want to see how you operate. And staying here all night the way you will, I just don’t need that.”
I watched her carefully; she was so serious. “It’s just not over until they all go home,” I said, trying hard to sound less the grade-school teacher than I usually did when talking strategy with her. “Something could happen.”
“I know that’s why you need to be here,” she replied. “But that’s not me. A year from now, I’ll be gone, doing the business from the ‘access’ side, not your process side. I’ll never be the last one in the room.” She looked down at the floor, kicking at a piece of something that wasn’t there. After a pause, she looked back up at me. “I just had to say, I don’t want to be you.”
This time I paused, glancing back over my shoulder for a second and finding no one. I looked down. “I get it. You’re right, you don’t need it. Go.” She waited. “Go. It’s all right. And thanks for coming back.”
She was smiling as she turned to walk away. I watched, impressed, and happy to know that someone at least knew where they were going.
“Hey,” I said, She stopped. “I should have let you in on it more. Sorry.” She turned, and gave me a sad smile. After a few moments, she spun around, hurrying down the hall.
I turned back toward the conference, but as I approached the hallway, found Peter blocking my way. “Got a sec?”
Great, I thought, what now?
“The DOD Appropriations conference just finished,” he began.
“Koliba gets his $20 million this year.”
“Oh.” This was very strange: Peter never talked about classified programs, at least not to me. “Okay.”
“We added something to the bill.” He paused, and taking my elbow pulled me back toward the hallway where I’d been talking with Michelle. It was empty, but Peter led me another dozen yards down the hall before continuing. Looking back over his shoulder, and then down at the floor, he said, “The compromise was Alexis’s idea.”
The way he said that last bit, the tone he used, I wasn’t sure if he was speaking to me or to himself, saying it out loud as if to validate it. I waited, still having no idea what he was getting at.
“The bill requires DIA to shut down the listening post in Golongo, and open one up somewhere else. Hell, they could open two if they want – in working the deal, we gave them $60 million.” He’d stopped, now that it was out.
She’d asked me what I needed, and I’d gotten it: the $20 million. Then she’d shut down the listening post. Jesus, the girl learned fast.
“The SecDef, the head of DIA, a couple of colonels who do the black budget.” He paused. “Two or three members, and four or five staffers on Appropriations.”
“Jesus, no, he’d tell the fucking New York Times and it’ll be in tomorrow’s newspaper,” Peter snorted. “No one else finds out until it’s shut down. It’s the only way they’ll get out safe.”
“How long is that?”
“Three months, at the max. They need time to set up the exit.” He looked at me. “You can wait that long?”
“No one’s going to hear anything from me,” I responded. There wasn’t anything for me to tell anyone; we had a one-year contract, and thanks to this action we’d be fulfilling it. And there wasn’t any point in telling anyone: there was nothing any of us could have done. “Thanks, Peter.”
Walking back into the room a few minutes later, I looked around for Alexis, and saw her in a far corner of the room, speaking with Kelton. She saw me first, and the two of them turned, facing me as they stopped talking. I pointed at her, and smiled. She’d beaten me fair and square, the first staffer in ten years who’d taken a hypothetical like that and turned it into reality. I was impressed. You have learned much, Grasshopper, I thought. I smiled to myself, and sat down for the next round.
* * *
By 4:30 a.m., the Conferees were getting to the end of the bill. Pretty much all that was left on their list of open issues was the fight over Iraqi reconstruction money. They’d actually spent 45 minutes at one point berating Koliba for his evil ways, further evidence of the utter disconnect between Congressional debates and reality. Kelton was one of the people who piled on, maybe for my benefit, maybe just to gain more bona fides with the Congressional Black Caucus, who knows? In the end, they’d cut off any funds in the bill from going to Golongo without prior notification of the Committee, the standard aid cutoff.
At this point, there were only about fifteen of us outsiders left in the room, and at least ten of those were from various lobbying firms working for the Iraqi government and its many prime-ministers-in-waiting. In August, the lobbying firm founded by Mississippi Governor and former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour had taken a contract working for Iyad Allawi against Iraq’s then-sitting Prime Minister. It shocked many of us to the core, mostly because almost no one seemed surprised: the United States was in the middle of a war under a Republican President, American troops dying to defend an incredibly inept Iraqi government, and a mainstream Republican lobbying firm had jumped into Iraq’s political infighting. It was unconscionable, and would have been seen as virtual treason in a simpler time, before money had completely taken over in Washington, but it slipped by as a one-day story in 2007. Once they got away with it, firms all over town were positioning themselves for this new shot at the Iraq gravy train, and any Congressional session debating the war and its aftermath was even busier than usual.
Across the room, one last soldier of the Shaddock Mills contingent remained. I’d tracked them down in the hallway conversations, listening in a little here or there during breaks until I could figure out who was who. A more senior colleague had made it up until the last break, but appeared to have given up shortly after they reconvened. The members had admitted before taking that last break that, while the Iraq reconstruction funding would take time, it was all that remained between us and freedom.
Kenny Thurgood, bless his heart, was still there. Michael and Tom had cleared out, the latter even paler than usual after these debates; he’d struggled to sit still during the Koliba conversation, and that was without knowing that he’d seen the last of his Koliba contracts. I’d committed to staying through to the end, as I did every year.
Adam Childress was still there too, with his boss, Sen. VanderMeer. That in itself was a bit of a mystery, since most years VanderMeer cleared out of meetings like this as soon as his issues were done. This year, though, he was hanging in.
“Mr. Chairman, perhaps we can break just one last time to consider positions on the Iraq reconstruction funding.” This would be it, I knew. The members who remained had all made their speeches, designed to satisfy the various lobbyists present that they’d tried their best to win the day, but now it was time for the Subcommittee Chairman to get together with the State Department’s lead rep, the Under Secretary for Politico-Military Affairs, to hash out some final compromise allowing the Iraq money – and the bill – to go through.
It was time.
While the members hemmed and hawed about their upcoming break, I slid across the row until I was behind Kenny. Leaning in close, I said quietly, “Kenny, if there’s a time to deal with the religious rights issues your boss is worried about, I think this is it.”
He turned and smiled. “I’ll be right back.”
* * *
“Mr. Chairman, I object. The provision is outside the scope of this conference.”
‘Outside the scope’ was Congress-speak for arguing against a provision because it hadn’t been included in the bill when the bill was debated in the House or the Senate. An extremely useful and powerful tool when it was true. Useless in this case, since both Committee reports had dealt with the specific issue under discussion, and both bills had a provision limiting aid to the country in question.
“Mr. Chairman, if I may.” It was Sen. VanderMeer, Adam crouched at his elbow. “I respectfully disagree with my colleague. Both bills contain a provision on this issue, in Title VI. This amendment is entirely within the scope of this conference.” Glancing over at me from across the table, he smiled ever so slightly before turning back to stare at the Chairman.
I kept as straight a face as was possible, the amendment in question being basically the same that VanderMeer had tried to offer on the Senate Floor at my request. Looking first at VanderMeer, and then at Adam, I realized that my luck had decided to stick with me through the end of the year. Without Tom trying to get VanderMeer to push something positive on Koliba, and without that chance coffee with Kenny and Adam, none of this would have been possible.
Rep. Gunderson, Tom’s good friend the Ranking Minority Member, sat uncomfortably in his seat, utterly unprepared for this amendment and seemingly unable to find a way out of it. Behind him, Kenny Thurgood and his boss, Rep. Tommy Walston, Chairman of the House Republican Conference, sat stone-faced. The House Republican Conference consists of every single Republican in the House, and is generally a much more conservative group than the typical House Appropriations Committee member. Under a Republican President, with a very narrow Democratic majority in the House, it was impossible to get a foreign aid appropriations bill through the House without their support. Walston, with Kenny close behind him, had come into the room just as the Conferees were about to start up again with this one little thing they needed, a new, innocuous amendment they’d brought with them and handed to Rep. Gunderson so he could offer it on their behalf.
Walston was playing some serious hardball here.
The issue? A provision to prohibit Ex-Im Bank financing for any projects in countries listed in Section 697 of the bill. As written, the amendment didn’t name any countries, but Section 697 listed various limitations on aid to Central Asia – more colloquially, the Stans.
The amendment – very cleverly drafted, one would have to admit – inserted a new subsection (b) prohibiting any aid under any program to the country referred to in subsection (a) unless the President determined and reported to Congress that the country was not undertaking a program of religious persecution against any group.
The country mentioned in subsection (a) was Kazakhstan.
No Ex-Im financing meant no oil pipeline.
The President could waive the provision “in the interest of national security,” a standard waiver. So you could argue that, if the White House really, really wanted the oil pipeline in Kazakhstan to go ahead, they could do it.
I glanced around the room. While the tension at the table had gone up about twenty notches, the few people in the audience barely seemed to notice.
The debate, if still quiet, had turned fierce. There was a level of resignation in the opposition, and a sense that people just wanted to get out of the room. It wasn’t all that much different from the last few hours, when people had been biting each other’s heads off over Iraq.
I glanced over at my nameless Shaddock Mills counterpart. He’d been doodling. I’d been right: he didn’t know the bill well enough to understand what was happening, or why.
This was going to work.
* * *
After discussing the amendment for about fifteen minutes, the Members took an unplanned break. As those of us left in the room rose to stretch, Alexis rose from her seat and began to head in my direction.
I was expecting this, but didn’t want to get caught in the room; my friend from Shaddock Mills might get suspicious. Heading for the door, I was almost out when Alexis caught up with me. “Can we talk, Ed?”
“Walk with me,” I responded. Something a Member or staffer usually said to a lobbyist, not the other way around, but I was too close to let this slip through.
Heading into the hall, I turned left, toward the next corridor. There, at least, I thought we might have some privacy.
“What are you doing?”
I looked down at Alexis. She looked genuinely curious, not angry.
From behind us, a voice boomed, “What the FUCK are you up to?” It was Raymonda, barreling toward me, with Roger on his short legs trailing behind her.
So much for privacy. The Shaddock Mills guy was nowhere in sight, though, so I was still in the clear. “Ray, it’s not me.”
“Bullshit it’s not you, you sonofabitch,” she said, coming into my face. “You’re pissed because you got screwed and now you’re trying to fuck with the bill.”
“Ray, I’ve got no dog in this fight,” I responded, surprising myself with how cool I felt. “You’re stuck with what they’re demanding, but it’s about not my client. It’s the loony-tunes right.”
“Ed, be sensible.” It was Roger. “Sen. Fuller insisted the Statement of Managers’ language be pulled.”
“Roger, I am serious.” I looked him in the eye, and held it for several seconds. “There’s nothing on the Dungan here.”
In a way, I was telling the truth. Most lobbyists in Washington pursue their clients’ goals, and don’t care if anything gets in the way. Many of those are simply saying ‘no,’ the way the health care industry did when they decimated Hillary Clinton’s dementedly confusing industry overhaul plan. Sometimes, though, what you do is a misdirection, a dodge, where you set loose the dogs of war on the powers-that-be and watch what happens. Like letting the religious right know that they had gotten absolutely zero out of this legislation, and telling them just the right moment to come into the room and destroy the bill.
It’s just that, I wasn’t doing it to help out a client. Not exactly.
“How do we fix this?” That was Raymonda. She must still have been thinking I cared.
“You can’t,” I responded. “There’s no way out of the room but to take it.”
“FUCK. YOU.” Raymonda spat the words out, one at a time.
“You can’t get the bill through the House unless the Republican Caucus supports it.” All Appropriations Conference Reports had to pass each House of Congress one last time before going to the President, and getting Republican votes in the House for foreign aid bills had always been difficult. Even for Republican Presidents. “And even if we end the year with an omnibus CR” – an omnibus bill, the humongous kitchen-sink kind of bill then ends up funding the entire government at one shot – “your bill only gets in there if the House Minority Whip can say, ‘the bill’s got something in there for Jesus.’”
“They don’t think that way, you asshole.” Raymonda again.
“I know they don’t,” I replied, “and you know what I mean. Walston just made this their line in the sand, and they’ll stick to it.”
And don’t think I was missing the irony here. This was the strategy I’d refused months before, rightwingers pulling Jesus out of their back pocket and waving him around like a prop. The whole idea of such a move had been one of the things I hated most about Washington, the way every belief could be twisted for political advantage, used as a fundraising tool or an attack ad or a speech to constituents to ‘rally the base.’
But that was when I actually believed in the place. Not any more. And more importantly, I’d figured out that no one else did either. We were all just playing an enormous board game, and winning and losing had nothing to do with the people or the country, it had to do with which party was ahead, what candidate was winning, who could suck more money out of the system than the other guy.
Alexis tried. “The bill has $200 million for Iraqi reconstruction.”
“Right-wing Republicans in the House don’t give a rat’s ass about Iraqi reconstruction,” I said. “They’ll spend billions to blow shit up, but they think it’s someone else’s problem to rebuild. And besides,” I continued, pointing back toward the Conference, “this is the religious right and there’s nothing in the bill for Jesus. Rebuilding Moslem houses doesn’t change that.”
“The White House will tell them to vote for the bill.” Raymonda’s turn. “They’ll beat the crap out of them to get this through.”
“Yeah, great,” I replied, “but when the Omnibus CR is pulled together behind those closed doors, the leader of the House Republican Conference will say, ‘my members need this provision.’ It will go in, and it will stay in.”
Roger stepped closer, nudging Raymonda back. She scowled, but ceded.
“Michael’s going to kill you. He made the deal a Harry too, and you’ve shot it down.” He put a hand on my shoulder, and his face screwed up in a single, massive twitch. “I’m serious about this. When that kid from Shaddock Mills reports back, Michael and your uncle Harry will both blow up.”
This time I stepped in close to him, and they all backed up. “That kid doesn’t even have a clue what you’re fighting about, and if you tell him, you’ll lose the bill and the Iraq reconstruction money.” I looked at Raymonda. “Don’t kid yourselves, this bill is going to squeak through in the best of circumstances, and now that they’re focused on it, the only way that the Republicans in the House are going to let it pass is with this provision. Otherwise the whole compromise goes down. So don’t say a fucking word, and take it as the best you’re going to get.”
They stared at me, that blank stare when wheels are spinning in people’s heads. Waiting for a few moments, I saw that they couldn’t find anything wrong with my logic. I turned back to Raymonda.
“The White House gets a national security waiver, so any Ex-Im deal they want will go through,” I told her. “No harm, no foul.”
“Fuck that,” she spat out. “You sonofabitch, pass this amendment and the pipeline goes to the fucking French consortium.”
Roger started. “Pipeline?”
Raymonda’s eyes widened, and she turned a bright red.
At least now I know no one else was in on it, I thought. “Maybe next time your friends will try competing on price rather than by buying off a couple of Senators.”
Raymonda glared at me, breathing heavily, her color still high. She started to speak, and stopped, started again. Moments later, she said, “You are dead in this town. Your career is over.”
She turned, looking briefly askance at Roger, and stormed down the hall.
Roger was blinking furiously, a pleading look on his face. “Pipeline? Consortium?”
“Go ask her,” I told him. “She has to tell you, and you’ll be able to hold it over her for a very long time.”
“And Michael?” he continued.
I smiled. “I’ll worry about Michael. And I’ll worry about Harry. You worry about the bill. Go ahead.”
Roger stared at me for a few moments, and headed after Raymonda. After several steps, he stopped, turning briefly to look back at me and wave, as if saying goodbye. Then he disappeared.
Alexis watched him until he turned the corner, and sighed. She crossed her arms in front of her, using her omnipresent folder as a shield again. Without looking toward me, she asked, “Do I want to know?”
“It’s more complicated than Koliba,” I said. “Nice job on that, by the way.”
She snorted, and looked me in the eye. “What do you get out of this?”
I smiled. “Me? I get to sleep at night. I get to face myself in the mirror every morning.”