With just 35 hours left, there was a phone message for Vice President Biden.
About an hour later, after talking to President Obama, Biden called back. He heard a familiar drawl: “Does anyone down there know how to make a deal?” Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate’s top Republican, wanted to know.
That phone call — the first of at least 13 between the two longtime statesmen — set in motion what became the ugly, unsatisfying last-minute conclusion of the “fiscal cliff” crisis.
It also ended a self-inflicted, nationally televised psychological experiment on Congress.
Two summers ago, politicians tried to concoct a deadline so terrible that even they — mistrustful, divided, weakly led — would be scared into doing something big to solve the nation’s tax-and-spending problems.
They misjudged themselves.
In the months leading up to the cliff, and especially in the grueling final two weeks, their mega-deadline only produced more division, not cooperation. There were the usual feuds between the parties, followed by a round of new and bitter battles within them.
An in-depth look at the final four tense days shows that McConnell and Biden resolved the crisis through old-fashioned backroom bargaining. With each call and each new offer, they pared away a little more of the grand ambitions each side had once held so dear, until all that was left was a modest measure that raised some new tax revenue and left most of the deficit problem intact.
Left largely to the sidelines was almost everyone else in Washington — the president, the speaker of the House, the majority leader of the Senate and hundreds of rank-and-file lawmakers anxiously wondering what they might be asked to vote for and how much each of their leaders was giving away.
Congress’s experiment became a parable about the dangers of the way Washington works now — careering from deadline to deadline, panic to panic, no one really happy in the end.
And it concluded in typical fashion — lawmakers set themselves up for another deadline and another panic, this one just two months away.
On Friday, four days before the year-end deadline, President Obama and the congressional leaders from each party gathered in the Oval Office. It was not a happy group.
The Democrats were wary. Two weeks earlier, Obama stunned them by offering to give ground on long-held Democratic positions. The president offered to apply a less generous measure of inflation to Social Security benefits, which would save money by reducing their rate of growth. Obama also backed off a demand that he had championed for five years that George W. Bush-era tax cuts be allowed to expire for people making more than $250,000 per year.
Instead, Obama gave a higher, more Republican-friendly number: $400,000.
“In the blink of an eye, they crossed the Rubicon,” said a Senate Democratic aide.
But, there in the Oval Office, the top Republican in the room was in an even worse mood.
Before the meeting even began, House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio had offered a vulgar insult to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
Boehner’s anger began with a recent, debilitating defeat in his own chamber, when he asked fellow Republicans to cast a vote supporting one of his bargaining positions. They declined, somewhat spectacularly, leaving Boehner to declare that he had done all he could do. It was up to the Senate to avert the cliff.
Reid decided to pile on, calling Boehner a “dictator” on the Senate floor — a so-wrong-it’s-funny insult that provoked snickers in the Capitol.
So when Boehner saw Reid at the White House, the normally amiable speaker was steaming.
“Go f--- yourself,” he said, pointing a finger at Reid, according to both Democratic and Republican aides who were there.
“Excuse me?” Reid responded.
Boehner repeated himself. Reid just stared.
The meeting went ahead. Democrats talked tax rates and trade-offs with McConnell. But Boehner refused to engage, sitting stone-faced on a deep couch.
Reid pestered him with questions. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tried to play good cop.
“John,” she said, “Are you going to try to be a little bit constructive?”
Boehner would not.
“The House has acted,” he said. “It’s up to the Senate.”
On Saturday, McConnell and his staff hunkered down in the senator’s office. Reid did not come in, but his staff got to work in his office.
Only 60 steps separated them, but they were hundreds of thousands of dollars apart on the threshold for raising income tax rates.
McConnell made an offer: The Bush-era tax hikes could expire for people making more than $500,000, or couples making more than $750,000.
Democrats countered with a lower number. On it went, and the numbers got closer together. Republicans went down as far as $450,000 for individuals, $550,000 for couples.
That’s when the bargaining stopped.