At Long Last, Lawmakers Strike Deal to Avoid a Government Shutdown

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With just minutes to go before a midnight deadline, House Republicans and Senate Democrats announced they had struck a long-awaited deal to fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year, averting a shutdown that would have furloughed hundreds of thousands of federal employees, stalled services for millions of Americans and brought potential political repercussions for both parties.

“I’m pleased that Senator Reid and I and the White House have been able to come to an agreement that will in fact cut spending and keep our government open,” House Speaker John Boehner announced just before 11 p.m., after a closed conclave in the Capitol’s basement at which he told members he had secured the best deal possible.

“I’m pleased to announce the federal government will be open for business,” President Obama said in a five-minute statement, which thanked Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for their efforts and lauded “a budget that invests in our future while making the largest annual spending cut in our history.”

Reid and Boehner released a joint statement outlining the terms of the agreement, whose framework dribbled out during an endgame marked by partisan sniping and muddled messages. The bill includes $78.5 billion in spending reductions from the President’s 2011 budget request (which was never passed), or $38.5 billion from current levels. Though the statement did not specify, the deal will not include controversial policy riders–most notably on abortion rights–that emerged as sticking points for a faction of the Republican caucus, according to Democratic lawmakers. Democrats “made sure that at the end of the day this was a debate about spending cuts–not social issues like women’s health and the protection of our air and water,” Obama said.

To buy time for lawmakers to write and review the continuing resolution, the leaders said their parties will pass a “bridge” continuing resolution that will fund the government for seven days while lopping off the first $2 billion in cuts. “I would expect the final vote on this to occur mid-next week,” Boehner said.

There’s no guarantee his members will vote for it, and Tea Party groups are already making noises about mounting a primary challenge to Boehner for purportedly selling out conservative orthodoxy by dropping provisions that would have de-funded issues ranging from health-care reform to the EPA’s ability to regulate emissions. Nonetheless, the agreement is a victory for Boehner, who just months into his Speakership passed a pivotal test by apparently selling the compromise to a conference itching for a confrontation. “I think the speaker has done a great job of working as hard as he can toward some kind of solution,” says freshman Joe Walsh, a Tea Partyer who nonetheless says he’ll “have trouble” supporting a deal that fails to meet the $61 billion in cuts the GOP had promised constituents.

After an endgame marked by muddled messages and shifting parameters, the deal struck was fairly conventional: Democrats offered additional spending cuts in exchange for the exclusion of the abortion language. Nor was the timing much of a surprise. Hemmed in by his Tea Party wing, Boehner needed to take a hard line to solidify his support, and may have burnished his conservative bona fides by slowly wringing a few extra billions from Democratic negotiators as the time ticked away. “This is the best deal we could get,” Boehner reportedly told his members, according to a GOP lawmaker first quoted by National Journal. Neither party wanted to blink in the first of a series of budget tussles—particularly not with weightier debates over the 2012 budget and the federal debt ceiling looming on the horizon.

After weeks of apportioning blame and predicting political blowback, members of both parties will now likely issue a round of celebratory missives congratulating each other for doing their job. In truth, neither party emerges from the episode looking good. Boehner spent months framing the budget debate as a crusade to cut spending, but in the end, it was abundantly clear that for some of the social conservatives in his conference, dollars and cents were less important than ideological fault lines like abortion, health-care reform and global warming. Democrats, meanwhile, didn’t inspire confidence in their ability to haggle. They conceded a vital ideological battle from the get-go, allowing that spending cuts—rather than further investments—are the proper way to juice a flagging economy, a point on which economists are bitterly divided. (Some suggest the GOP’s policy prescriptions will cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.) In the end, they also handed Republicans some $6 billion more than their opening bid. This doesn’t augur well for the party’s ability to win the bigger fights down the road.

For now, both sides will enjoy a much-needed respite. The next fight is just days away.