Senate Strikes Deal to Avert Looming Government Shutdown — For Now
By ALEX ALTMAN | Time.com – 4 hrs ago
Stepping back from the brink, Senate leaders on Monday night struck a deal to avert a government shutdown, passing a measure that funds the government through mid-November and keeps money flowing to cash-strapped FEMA, enabling the agency 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 would 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 in the coming days. 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, the Senate approved a stopgap bill Monday to fund the government through Nov. 18 by a 79 to 12 vote. “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 Monday afternoon 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 Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid had the 60 votes needed to advance the legislation. A symbolic vote on Reid’s plan failed 54 to 35 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 to how to 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 .04 % of the federal budget. (Would A Government Shutdown Boost the Market?)
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 they had done their 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,” Democratic Senator Mark Warner said of the impasse on Sunday. “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,” Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who is considered likely to back Reid’s bill, said in a statement. “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 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. (See the top 10 knockdown congressional battles.)
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 they viewed 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 where the party feels it can paint the GOP 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 fleeting hopes that the so-called deficit-reduction “supercommittee” will seize the moment to forge a bipartisan agreement that puts 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 they 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.
Read “Hope for Revenue Reform? The Deficit Supercommittee Gets a Tax-Smart Staff Director.”
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