Senate Strikes Deal to Avert Looming Government Shutdown — for Now

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Senate majority leader Harry Reid speaks at a press conference in Washington on Sept. 26, 2011

Updated: 8:40 p.m. E.T.

Stepping back from the brink, Senate leaders on Monday night struck a deal to avert a government shutdown, passing a measure that will fund the government through mid-November and keep money flowing to the cash-strapped Federal Emergency Management Agency, enabling it to continue providing relief to disaster-stricken regions and sparing the public from another drawn-out budget battle.

To everyone’s dismay, but few people’s surprise, Congress had stumbled into yet another showdown that could have partially shuttered the federal government and deprived disaster-wracked regions of federal aid if the Republican-controlled House and Democratic Senate were unable to resist inflicting a disaster of their own making. But FEMA on Monday indicated that it had sufficient cash reserves to sustain itself through the end of the fiscal year, on Friday. The revelation broke an impasse over whether an emergency cash injection to the agency should be offset by spending cuts, as House Republicans insisted, and paved the way for Senate leaders to sidestep the looming crisis.

Hours later, in a 79-to-12 vote, the Senate approved a stopgap bill to fund the government through Nov. 18. “It’s a win for everybody,” Democratic leader Harry Reid said. Mitch McConnell, Reid’s Republican counterpart, called the agreement “a reasonable way to keep the government operational.” The deal includes a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government into next week to buy time for the House — whose members are on recess this week — to approve the deal. The lower chamber could elect to pass the shorter-term bill without forcing its members to return to Washington early.

After a weekend that yielded no tangible progress, the Senate returned on Monday for a planned cloture vote on a Democratic bill that would apportion enough money for emergency disaster relief without offsetting spending cuts. But it was unclear whether Reid had the 60 votes needed to advance the legislation. A symbolic vote on Reid’s plan failed 54 to 35 on Monday night.

In some ways, the crisis wasn’t resolved so much as postponed. The latest round of budget brinkmanship — the third in six months — underscored the depths of congressional dysfunction. It was a low-speed, low-stakes train wreck over how to fund the government for the first seven weeks of the new fiscal year, which starts this weekend. Disaster-relief funding is a nonpartisan topic, and the money at issue was paltry. The money the two sides were squabbling over represents just 0.04 % of the federal budget.

The dispute followed a familiar pattern. Late last week, House Republican leaders passed a measure with some $1.5 billion in cuts to green-technology programs. Weary of being steamrolled by Speaker John Boehner and his intransigent Tea Party hard-liners, Senate Democrats balked at the cuts and tabled the House bill in a 59-to-36 vote. The House, apparently satisfied that it had done its part, bolted for a planned break, leaving Reid to try to thread through his competing measure.

Moderates in both parties urged compromise on what should have been a relatively simple procedural vote to keep the government running. “It is embarrassing,” Virginia Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat, said of the impasse on Sunday. Republican Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who is likely to back Reid’s bill, said in a statement, “The gridlock and partisanship in Washington right now is disgusting. With economic instability in the United States and around the world, it’s unacceptable for Congress to add more uncertainty to the marketplace by threatening another government shutdown.” He continued, “This latest episode of partisan politics threatens to hold back relief from those who need it most. It’s time for people on both sides to stop bickering and work together on policies that will get our economy going.”

On Monday, Democrats blistered Republicans for arguing that disaster relief should be offset by spending cuts — an idea that Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu dubbed the “Cantor doctrine.” On the Senate floor, Democratic majority whip Dick Durbin lamented yet another “cussing match over shutting down the government.” House Republicans argued that their way was fiscally prudent and blamed Democrats for casting doubt over whether cities and states slammed by natural disasters would be afforded the resources to heal themselves.

And despite the damage a shutdown could wreak on the already tarnished reputations of both parties, it was hardly a given that it could be averted. After a Tea Party mutiny derailed the House’s first attempt at the bill, Boehner opted to placate his right flank by inserting additional cuts. Meanwhile, Democrats suggested that they viewed the skirmish as a chance to show some spine. Liberals have been itching for a confrontation, President Obama has adopted a tougher tone in recent weeks, and disaster aid is an issue with which the party feels it can paint Republicans as extremists in the throes of a spending-cut spasm that most economists consider damaging to the fragile economy.

Amid stubbornly high unemployment and wildly fluctuating financial markets, the saber rattling was in some respects a new nadir for Capitol Hill. The veneer of comity and cooperation ushered in after the debt-ceiling fiasco has vanished — and with it the fleeting hopes that the so-called deficit-reduction supercommittee would seize the moment to forge a bipartisan agreement to put the U.S. on a path toward fiscal sustainability. If Congress descends into hysterics over nonpartisan issues like disaster relief, it’s hard to see how it can tackle contentious topics like tax and entitlement reform. As the latest round of budget brinkmanship shows, Congress has a 12% approval rating for a reason.

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