Reporter's Notebook: 'Backstage' in the LBJ Room

Walk into room S-211 of the U.S. Capitol and one can imagine Lyndon Baines Johnson slung deep into an armchair, feet propped up on the desk, chain-smoking and dialing a coalition of northeast senators to cajole them to back a bill he was trying to maneuver through the Senate.

S-211 of the Capitol is known today as the LBJ Room. That's the suite Johnson used when he was Senate Majority Leader and ran the chamber with an iron fist.

In Johnson's day, S-211 was "backstage." This is where Johnson hatched parliamentary tactics and honed agreements with recalcitrant lawmakers far away from the public eye.

But S-211 was anything but backstage Wednesday.

Over the past few days, backstage has been the offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. That's where Democratic lawmakers and White House officials crafted a $789 billion stimulus bill to billion stimulus bill designed to resuscitate a languid economy a languid economy.

The irony is that they converted what was once LBJ's sanctum into the very public space where lawmakers met Wednesday in a rare, tribal ritual exclusive to Washington: the conference committee.

The House approved one version of the bill. The Senate, another. So House and Senate members must caucus in a conference committee to negotiate a definitive version of the legislation to send to the president for his signature.

So for the conference committee, several hundred aides, journalists and Members of Congress squeezed into S-211, dialing through BlackBerries and sifting through large, accordion binders.

In the center of the room, Congressional workers lined up five card tables side-by-side and covered them with a royal blue drop cloth They positioned ten bottles of Deer Park Water and accompanying glasses around the tables next to placards bearing the names Mr. Rangel, Mr. Camp and Mr. Baucus.

The conference committee was scheduled to start at 3 p.m.. But the minutes ticked by and the room baked from the crowd. At 3:45, the head of the conference committee, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, made an announcement.

"I have just been advised that the leadership of the House has gathered to be briefed on the bill. We will have to shift this to later in the day," Inouye explained in his deep baritone.

Groans echoed around the room. And like they were running an evacuation drill, the aides, journalists and lawmakers emptied out of S-211.

For 45 minutes, the LBJ Room was the epicenter of the Beltway universe. But in less than 30 seconds, it morphed into a backwater outpost. The card tables, placards and water bottles, relics of the most important place in Washington moments ago.

Whispers raced through the Capitol. Was the stimulus bill in trouble? Was there a snag? One of the negotiators, Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., attempted to portray the Democrats as being in "disarray."

"It startles me that they're having a meeting that they can't agree on in the first place," said Lewis.

The Democratic leadership team wanted to brief its members on what would be in the final version of the legislation and smooth out some rough spots with lawmakers who would be unhappy with what was stripped from the package. One senior House aide confided that the 3 pm meeting time was a "huge lift."

Some House Democrats weren't pleased with the bill.

"They said that there was a deal that didn't exist," said Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) appeared frustrated about cuts to the Neighborhood Stabilization Fund.

The House approved $4.2 billion for the fund. But the Senate zeroed that money out in its bill.

CBC member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., laughed when asked by a reporter if the Senate had "jammed" the House.

"You are not going to get me to answer that one," said Cummings.

But despite the misgivings, lawmakers finally started the conference committee around 5:35 p.m. And Harry Reid suggested that just holding the meeting was significant.

"This is the first, open conference we've had in 15 years," Reid said.

He then turned to the Republicans at the table.

"You did all of your conferences in secret," Reid added.

But Jerry Lewis asked Daniel Inouye whether this was a true conference or just for show.

"It's astonishing to have my friend from Hawaii come and sit here for 45 minutes while others are negotiating something down the hallway," Lewis said.

One by one, each negotiator spoke about the bill. But Inouye prohibited any of the conferees from offering any amendments to alter the package. The legislation was already written and wheeled in on carts as the conference committee started. The exercise was essentially a press conference where lawmakers from both sides spoke for or against the bill.

Almost exactly an hour after he gaveled the meeting into session, Inouye ended it. And Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., told reporters the deal was sealed.

The throng again departed the overstuffed LBJ Room. During the conference committee, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey, D-Wis., remarked on the irony of meeting in the cramped quarters that once served as LBJ's office.

"The Congress can spend $600 million for a visitor's center and still not have a room big enough for a conference and everyone who wants to watch this puzzle factory at work," Obey snorted.

A Democratic aide volunteered this nugget: "That's because the only way to get a bill done is behind closed doors."

A principle not lost on the man for whom the conference committee room was named, Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.