WASHINGTON — Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York was riding a bicycle, leading a tour on Martha’s Vineyard during a Democratic Party event Saturday, when his phone rang.
It was Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, calling from his suburban Washington home.
For days, the influential senators had been not-so-secretly trying to negotiate an end to the filibuster standoff in the Senate. They had spoken dozens of times. Now, 72 hours remained to cut a deal.
Pragmatists both, and believers in the importance of preserving the Senate’s traditions, they inched closer to an agreement, something the Senate’s two party leaders, Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), had been unable to do.
Schumer and McCain had become friendly enough that they trash-talked at times.
“I hope you crash,” McCain joked as he signed off.
Their partnership has been a high-stakes one, a relationship that did not exist a year ago, but that has grown stronger in a short time. Neither senator seems to have expected it.
The two were key brokers of the bipartisan immigration overhaul, and on Tuesday they emerged as the architects of a plan to de-escalate the showdown over the filibuster.
The Senate rule requires 60 votes to end debate on an issue, and Republicans were relying on it to hold up President Obama’s appointments. Reid had threatened to do away with the filibuster for executive branch appointments, an unprecedented change. But Schumer and McCain found a way to preserve the rights of the minority party, now the Republicans, and clear the way for seven presidential nominees.
“When we woke up this morning, we weren’t sure we had it yet,” Schumer said. “We walk up to the brink, but we get there.”
The two tapped the frustration building in Congress as senators from both parties have tired of partisan gridlock. When senators convened Monday night for a rare private session in the Old Senate Chamber — the site of some storied disputes — signs of that fatigue spilled into the open.
Rather than divide into their usual seating arrangement separated by an aisle, Democrats and Republicans settled down next to one another. Their BlackBerrys were silenced. They listened to one another. They stayed for more than three hours.
“Frank,” “heartfelt,” “constructive,” senators called the session.
After 10 p.m., Schumer and McCain resumed their talks.
Holed up in the majority leader’s office with Reid and other Democratic leaders, Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat, worked on the deal. No food was delivered; they snacked on peanuts.
McCain had assembled his own team by phone — Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and others — while he was at home in Virginia’s Crystal City.
“We talked and talked and talked and talked,” said McCain, whose cellphone kept running down.
The main sticking point was Obama’s two nominees for the National Labor Relations Board. Obama had appointed them while Congress was on recess 18 months ago in a move that two federal courts have struck down as invalid. Now, it was up to the Senate to renew them.
To protest what they called illegal appointments, Republicans were blocking the nominees and several others. “The issue was they wanted people who were not given a recess appointment the courts invalidated,” Schumer said.
A restive group of lower-ranking Democratic senators countered with a proposed rule change that would do away with the 60-vote threshold for executive branch nominees and allow approval by a simple majority.
Earlier in the day, McConnell walked over to Reid’s office with an offer: Republicans would stand down on the nominees if Reid publicly promised not to use the “nuclear option” to change the rules.
Reid declined to do that unless Republicans vowed not to filibuster future White House nominees.
McCain had been talking to Schumer for weeks about a resolution, but they had not always been on friendly terms.
The two got into a memorable tiff two years ago on the Senate floor, when McCain apologized for a snide comment he had made about Long Island, but then chastised Schumer for not being able to take a joke.
McCain, who dismissed Schumer only half in jest as a “classic New Yorker,” said Tuesday: “Part of it was, I thought, at least in his early years, he was not that involved in bipartisan issues.”
But the unlikely duo worked together late last year when another filibuster crisis erupted over a similar logjam. They met every morning at 8 a.m. with other senators to resolve that standoff. In January, they joined forces again on the immigration overhaul.
“He’s very good — excellent — at getting people to do things and agree to things,” McCain said. “And he’s tireless.”
Schumer said McCain “initiated these calls because he was so eager to avoid having a blow-up on the rules. I said to him, ‘Look, I want to avoid a blow-up on the rules too.’”
McCain visited Reid on Monday afternoon with his own suggestion: Have Obama drop the two labor board nominees and nominate new ones. As the evening wore on, McCain made another offer: Senate Republicans would not stand in the way of any labor board nominees the president submitted.
Democrats called back to be sure they understood.
“Any names,” McCain said, according to a Senate aide familiar with the call who asked not to be identified to discuss private negotiations.
Democrats slept on it.
On Tuesday morning, Reid was uncharacteristically late arriving on the Senate floor. The majority leader had been detained by a visit from McConnell, who again sought a deal. But Reid already had one in hand.
“When there’s goodwill, the Senate can work like greased lightning,” Schumer said. “There’s a growing desire in the Senate, on both sides of the aisle, to work together to get things done. We’re tired of just being on one side of the aisle or the other and sort of screaming at each other.”