Weeks of bitter stalemate gave way to a frenetic few hours of legislative action Wednesday to address the federal government’s latest budgetary crisis — an episode marked by rare bipartisanship, but also the very real prospect of more fights to come.
The relatively rapid movement, by congressional standards, came on the 16th day of the partial government shutdown and one day before the Treasury Department had warned the nation could run out of money to pay its bills unless it raises its borrowing limit.
If legislation brokered by Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate gets to his desk, President Barack Obama has vowed to get things back up and running as soon as possible.
“I will sign it immediately,” the President said. “We’ll begin reopening our government immediately.”
Still, it’s not a done deal.
The lone obstacle — as it’s been throughout this process, from Democrats’ standpoint — is the GOP-led House. Its members began debating the legislation at about 9:30 p.m. ET, about an hour after the Senate passed the same measure by an overwhelming 81 to 18 vote. They began voting shortly before 10 p.m.
For all its resistance to date, even staunch conservatives who say they will vote “no” concede the measure should easily pass the House. If it does, that would mean hundreds of thousands of furloughed government workers will very soon return to work, national parks will reopen and investors can rest easier knowing a debt default isn’t imminent.
“We’ve been able to come together for a lot of different reasons,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters after that vote of his work with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to negotiate a deal.
The agreement represented a victory for Obama and Democrats over conservative Republicans, who had tried to use the shutdown and debt ceiling deadline to wring concessions on spending cuts and dismantling the Obama’s signature health care reforms.
The final deal worked out by Senate leaders extended current spending levels until January 15.
It also raised the federal borrowing limit until February 7 and set up budget negotiations between the House and Senate intended to come up with a broader spending plan for the rest of fiscal year 2014, which ends on September 30.
Another provision requiring the government to confirm the eligibility of people receiving federal subsidies under Obamacare was labeled by Democrats and the White House as minor.
“We fought the good fight; we just didn’t win,” House Speaker John Boehner told a radio station in his home state of Ohio.
Just before the vote, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — a tea party favorite who is vehemently opposed to the final bill — called the compromise terrible but did not mount a filibuster or employ other procedural moves in opposition.
He had earlier criticized his Senate colleagues for what he called their failure to listen to the American people and said the fight against Obamacare would continue.
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York blasted Cruz and the rest of the tea party wing in Congress for what he called the “reckless, irresponsible politics of brinksmanship over the last few weeks.”
“It was not America’s finest moment,” Schumer said.
In a brief statement before the expected House vote, Obama said politicians in Washington have to “get out of the habit of governing by crisis.”
“Hopefully, next time, it will not be in the 11th hour,” Obama told reporters Wednesday night, calling for both parties to work together on a budget, immigration reform and other issues.
National polls conducted since the start of the shutdown on October 1 indicate public anger with all sides over the partisan political impasse, with Republicans getting blamed more than Democrats or Obama.
Boehner and other House Republican leaders told their caucus earlier Wednesday they would vote for the agreement. Participants said the meeting ended with a standing ovation for the embattled speaker.
“Blocking the bipartisan agreement reached today by the members of the Senate will not be a tactic for us,” Boehner said in a statement. “Our drive to stop the train wreck that is the president’s health care law will continue.”
News of the deal brought some relief to Wall Street as well as Washington, with pressure to resolve the impasse building with the approach of the Thursday deadline to raise the debt ceiling or face default.
Markets soar on agreement
U.S. stocks rose on the news of an agreement, with the benchmark Dow Jones Industrial Average jumping more than 200 points on the day.
Reid hailed the agreement he worked out with McConnell as “historic,” saying that “in the end, political adversaries put aside their differences.”
Obama praised Senate leaders for reaching a compromise, and urged Congress to act quickly, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
In an expected gesture to hundreds of thousands of federal workers furloughed by the shutdown, the measure provides back pay for wages withheld.
McConnell fired an opening salvo for the budget talks expected to begin soon and continue until December when he said any ensuing spending deal should adhere to caps set in a 2011 law that included forced cuts known as sequestration.
“Preserving this law is critically important to the future of our country,” McConnell said of the Budget Control Act, which resulted from the previous debt ceiling crisis in Washington.
The focus on an agreement shifted to the Senate after House Republicans failed on Tuesday to come up with a plan their majority could support, stymied again by demands from tea party conservatives for outcomes unacceptable to Obama and Senate Democrats, as well as some fellow Republicans.
Cruz, despite being in the Senate, is credited with spearheading the House Republican effort to attach amendments that would dismantle or defund the health care reforms known as Obamacare to previous proposals intended to end the shutdown.
All were rejected by the Democratic-led Senate, and Obama also pledged to veto them, meaning there was no chance they ever would have succeeded.
Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire called the House GOP tactic of tying Obamacare to the shutdown legislation “an ill-conceived strategy from the beginning, not a winning strategy.”
However, Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa advocated continued brinksmanship to try to change Obamacare, which conservatives detest as a big-government overreach.
“If we’re not willing to take a stand now, then when will we take this stand?” he told CNN’s “New Day,” adding that if “the conservative Republican plan had been implemented five years ago, say at the inception of what is now the Obama presidency, we would have far less debt and deficit.”
Thursday marks the day the Treasury Department will run out of special accounting maneuvers to keep the nation under the legal borrowing limit. From that point on, it would have to pay the country’s incoming bills and other legal obligations with an estimated $30 billion in cash, plus whatever daily revenue comes in unless Congress acted.
Carney clarified that borrowing authority would continue through Thursday.
According to the best outside estimates, the first day the government would run short of cash without more borrowing authority was between October 22 and November 1.
The prospect of the U.S. government running out of money to pay its bills and, eventually, finding it difficult to make payments on the debt itself, had economists around the world talking about dire consequences. Mutual funds, which are not allowed to hold defaulted securities, might have to dump masses of U.S. treasuries.
Ratings agency Fitch fired a warning shot Tuesday that it may downgrade the country’s AAA credit rating to AA+ over the political brinksmanship and bickering in Washington that have brought the government to this point.
That could help raise interest rates on U.S. debt, putting the country deeper into the red.
Disarray among House Republicans caused confusion on Tuesday, with Boehner having to pull a proposed agreement from the floor because conservatives found it too weak.
The House proposal dropped some provisions on Obamacare but prohibited federal subsidies to the President and his administration officials as well as federal lawmakers and their staff receiving health insurance through the Affordable Care Act programs.
It also would have forbidden the Treasury from taking what it calls extraordinary measures to prevent the federal government from defaulting as cash runs low, in effect requiring hard deadlines to extend the federal debt ceiling.
House Democrats opposed the GOP proposal, which meant it couldn’t pass without support from the 40 or so tea party conservatives, who wanted more spending cuts.
“It just kicks the can down the road another six weeks or two months,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor referred to the GOP infighting at Wednesday’s caucus meeting, telling his Republican colleagues to stop beating up on each other, according to participants. Describing Cantor as impassioned, they said he implored the caucus to avoid characterizing each other as good or bad Republicans.