Late Sunday night, deep in a Senate committee room, budget talks between congressional and White House negotiators were going nowhere.
The air was so hot it was stifling, and tempers were snapping. Then, Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, who prides himself on being "mean," got up and lit a fire in the fireplace.
"The longer you were in there, the more you felt you were hallucinating," recalls one Democratic aide, who stayed alert by focusing on angels painted on the ceiling.
Such is the bizarre reality behind the closed doors on Capitol Hill, where a small cast of lawmakers, White House officials, and their staffs have been performing their annual Kabuki to finalize the fiscal 2000 federal budget.
It's been a long, drawn-out drama. With Congress hoping to approve a new budget this week, seven weeks and a half dozen stop-gap spending bills after the Oct. 1 deadline, few are more relieved than the negotiators themselves.
With loosened ties and rolled-up sleeves, they have had to finesse key philosophical differences while attempting, on paper at least, to honor vows by the White House and the GOP-led Congress to keep any new spending from dipping into Social Security.
Down to the last minute, the drone of proposals and counteroffers went on late into the night, causing some participants to nod off - or just become stultified.
"I tended to get so bored," said one GOP staffer, tired of eating pizza and sipping bottled spring water.
Republican leaders on the Hill assigned feisty chief appropriators including Mr. Stevens, Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, and Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R) of Florida to handle much of this year's endgame.
It was, apparently, a strategic delegation of power as leaders sought to avoid what happened to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Last year, Mr. Gingrich resigned a month after agreeing to break budget limits by $20 billion to meet demands for additional spending by President Clinton.
Congressional Republicans also sought to weaken Mr. Clinton's veto leverage by sending him each of the 13 annual spending bills separately instead of combining them in a huge omnibus measure like last year's. "Like sled dogs, they're all individuals," says Stevens, Alaska's senior senator.
Moreover, GOP leaders and the White House promised to tone down the rhetorical fighting during the talks.
In the end, however, politics as usual intervened. Republican leaders approved at least $5 billion in additional spending that is expected to be included in a giant omnibus bill wrapping five outstanding appropriations bills into one.
Rhetorical spears have also flown from left and right. House GOP whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas loudly accused the White House of planning to raid Social Security.
Other Republican leaders took jabs at specific items sought by the Clinton administration, such as funding for needle-exchange programs in Washington. "He's holding up the D.C. bill because he wants [to give] needles to addicts," said Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi.
Often, such political invective interrupted proceedings at S-128, the elegant room on the main floor of the Capitol Building where final budget negotiations are still going on between the appropriations "cardinals" and White House budget director Jack Lew.
Last Tuesday, for example, talks broke down as the two sides clashed over how to use $1.4 billion in new education spending. Mr. Lew and other Democrats left the Capitol, miffed, after being kept waiting while Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania held a press conference attacking the administration's demand to use the money exclusively to hire 100,000 new teachers. Senator Specter insisted local school boards should have flexibility in using the funds.
"You don't get anywhere with nonnegotiable negotiations," retorted an exasperated Mr. Obey. He and Specter "barked at each other" during the flap, said one GOP aide who was present, calling the two men "cantankerous personalities." A new set of negotiators had to take over to resolve the education deadlock.
At other times, the fist-pounding was merely tactical. Stevens "will throw a fit to serve his purpose. Tempers are advantageous," said an appropriations staffer.
As differences narrow in the chaotic whirlwind of talks that shift from S-128 to other offices around the cavernous Capitol, negotiators are openly longing to leave.
"You have all these pieces strewn about, then suddenly ... we're done for the year," said House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas almost wistfully.
Mr. Armey had hoped to wrap things up by Veterans Day, and expressed joking irritation when his neatly coiffed Senate counterpart, Mr. Lott, sent senators home for the holiday before the job was done.
"We discovered that Elvis had left the building," he quipped.
For his part, Obey, a veteran of appropriations battles, says, "I think it's reasonable to pray for Thanksgiving."
Still, as the talks plod on, tensions sometimes give way to comic relief. On the night of Nov. 8, when Stevens threw a party, Obey came and played his harmonica. Then, to much amusement, the two budget warriors danced.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society