By Scott Wong, Justin Sink and Mike Lillis - 12/12/14 04:29 PM EST
Hours before a looming government shutdown, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) were on the phone.
It was one of at least four calls this week between the two leaders, who were both maneuvering over how to handle uprisings in their conferences over a $1.1 trillion government funding bill.
Boehner rebuffed her each time.
House GOP leaders believed Democrats would bring along enough votes to help them pass the measure despite opposition fueled by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the populist favorite who has targeted Wall Street throughout her career.
They knew breaks between Pelosi and President Obama were rare, and they believed Pelosi in the end would deliver enough votes to ensure the package went forward.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), a close friend of Boehner's from their days serving in the House together, said Boehner believed he had a stronger hand because he knew Obama didn't want the alternative to the massive spending bill: a short-term funding measure lasting just weeks or months.
“The difference is John was willing to play either one of them,” Burr told The Hill on Friday.
Pelosi had a fine line to walk with her caucus.
Democrats were under pressure not to let the government shut down, and the White House was pressing hard for the deal.
Yet liberals that are the base of Pelosi’s power in the conference were furious over the Wall Street provision, which they said could fuel a new financial crisis and banking bailout.
And they felt the White House had sold them out by acquiescing to the deal.
Bottled-up anger over Obama, who has disappointed liberals in the past with end-of-session deals on taxes, was bursting out.
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough took the brunt of it during a meeting with the Democratic conference on Thursday evening where he sought to save the funding package.
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who opposed the spending bill, said there was “a lot of tension” in the room as McDonough spoke “because we had to make a significant vote and the options were pretty bad.”
“We had to support a budget with these horrible provisions or we had to vote against a budget in the hopes that those provisions be dumped but the rest of it doesn't go down. So there was a lot of tension,” Welch said.
The meeting was prompted by a test vote on the “cromnibus” bill, which appeared to show it on life support.
Boehner and his leadership team then delayed the final vote and recessed the chamber for seven hours as they waited for Democratic leaders to get vote totals up on their side of the aisle.
Obama and Vice President Biden furiously made phone calls to House Democrats, urging them to back the cromnibus as McDonough made plans for his testy meeting.
The White House had delayed revealing its official position on the package, but quickly released a statement of administration policy supporting it after the test vote.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest indicated that the decision to wait was done in coordination with congressional Democrats.
Initially, the White House didn’t want to undercut Democrats by signaling support for the bill.
“As soon as the White House declares a position... it does undermine the negotiating leverage of Democrats,” Earnest said, acknowledging that after a presidential endorsement lawmakers could “no longer exact any changes as a result of the negotiations.”
Earnest and administration officials, however, had been effusively praising the bill from the point it was released. That meant the White House’s position on the bill was hardly a secret to rank-and-file Democrats.
Several Democrats said McDonough appeared to change few minds during his closed-door meeting, where he argued the spending bill funding most of the government through September was better than a short-term spending measures that would give more power to congressional Republicans.
But the meeting was important in that it allowed Democrats to vent directly to the White House about their disappointment.
And Welch said many Democrats agreed with McDonough on the substance.
“McDonough did a very direct presentation of the White House position, and that's all you could expect of him. And even those of us who voted no on the bill acknowledged that it was preferable to have a long-term deal,” Welch added. “People were tense, but people are always tense when they have to make a tough vote. Nothing new about that.”
Initially, Democratic leaders told their Republican counterparts that only 20-some Democrats would back the legislation.
Republicans suspected Democrats had roughly 10 extra votes in their back pocket if they needed them to pass the spending package, sources said.
Just in case, Republicans prepared a three-month stopgap spending measure, known as a continuing resolution, just in case anything went awry.
“That was always the fallback but we were going to do everything we could to pass the bill,” said one source.
The bill eventually passed by a razor-thin margin, 219-206, a single vote more than was needed.
But many more Democrats voted for the bill than expected: 57.
A day later, Pelosi sent a letter to her members thanking them for their work in the 113th Congress and praising them for “leaving in doubt the number of Democrats prepared to vote” for the spending bill on final passage.
She said this had enabled the party “to maintain leverage in the last day’s negotiations.”
“However Members voted, a unity of purpose and a clarity of message came from our House Democratic Caucus,” she added.
By the end of the week, Pelosi for the first time had publicly broken with the White House. She’d also allowed her own conference to unleash its anger over Obama. But by not whipping explicitly against the package she opposed, she also tacitly delivered more than enough votes to keep the government funded by a measure written with Senate Democratic input.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who supported the spending package, hailed Pelosi's leadership.
“She, as a leader, has to represent where the caucus is. And a majority of my caucus was very uneasy about this bill — so uneasy that they had to vote against it," he said. "And she gave voice to that … very ably.”
Welch praised both Pelosi and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip who voted in favor of the package. He said they granted Democrats both the space to vote their conscience and a loud voice in the debate.
“Where the caucus gets really dispirited is when we're passive bystanders to everything that's going on,” Welch said. “So when these two issues came up, there really was a groundswell of opposition within the caucus. And it wasn't suppressed; in fact, it was energized. Pelosi became the advocate. But even Hoyer, who obviously had a bias toward the benefit of a long-term deal, gave space to all the caucus members to call if as they saw it.
“The combo of Nancy and Steny acting that way I think created some good will in the caucus,” Welch added.
Boehner also emerged as a victor.
“I’m a happy warrior,” he said, smiling to reporters as he strode to the chamber for the final vote.
Afterward, Obama called Boehner to thank him for getting it across the finish line, sources said.