Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011 | 11:45 p.m.
WASHINGTON — Barely 24 hours before federal funding was set to run out and shut down the government, lawmakers resolved their remaining differences, saving federal employees from being furloughed right before the holidays and implementing cuts Congress agreed to this summer.
Experiencing a sense of deja vu? So were most lawmakers, who have been to the brink least three times in the last year. But this time, matters seemed destined for resolution: where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, and House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, spent the last few government shutdown fights slinging mud right to the deadline, they were speaking in the dulcet tones of cooperative dealmaking throughout Thursday.
"There's no need to shut down the government," Boehner said at a news conference Thursday. "I think everyone just needs to step back and take a deep breath. There's an easy way to untangle all of this...No more show votes, I think it's just time to legislate."
"We've done enough back-and-forth," Reid said on the Senate floor Thursday morning. "We have a few issues that are still outstanding but they're really small in number."
It would take the rest of the day before House and Senate appropriators could ink a deal, and each side would have to sacrifice a few pet projects along the way. But Congress is now poised to pass, in bipartisan fashion, a bill to keep the government funded through the rest of the fiscal year before tomorrow's midnight deadline.
That's right: a whole 9 1/2 months with no threat of a government shutdown.
According to a report by the Associated Press, the final deal funds 10 Cabinet departments and makes slight reductions to the foreign aid, environmental spending, and Pentagon budgets, but not veterans' affairs. Even under the spending caps, the VA comes away with a slight boost in funding levels - likely a nod to the returning soldiers from Iraq, where combat operations officially ended Thursday. The Securities and Exchange Commission also gets a healthy budget increase - 10 percent - which is in keeping with its expanded functions: The SEC has to enforce many of the regulations that were adopted under the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul bill last year.
Some changes were reminiscent of fights in previous shutdown showdowns. For instance, Pell grants were preserved in size (maximum: $5,500) but not number - recipients won't be eligible for as many semesters of aid, and the income threshold for maximum eligibility was lowered. Meanwhile most policy riders - such as a rollback of EPA rules or defunding Planned Parenthood - failed to make the final cut, as they have before.
But the two items that got lawmakers over the hump were light bulbs and Cubans.
According to the AP, Republicans dropped their demand for restrictions on people who visit or send remittances to relatives in Cuba, and Democrats gave up on an effort to pass energy efficiency standards for lightbulbs.
All told, the deal is worth $1 trillion.
The deal was an example of history avoiding an unwelcome repeat.
On this day in 1995, a little over a year after Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in a midterm election, the Republican speaker of the House and the Democratic president reached an impasse over funding the federal government and it shut down for 21 days.
Republicans repeated much of that history in 2010. But whether it was the holiday or a sense of combat fatigue on the day the nation ended its combat presence in Iraq, lawmakers were more keen on compromise this time.
That doesn't, however, mean that after the Senate and House vote Friday, everyone can pack up and go home: There's still the matter of the payroll tax to settle. Boehner joined Reid Thursday in pledging to call the House back to vote on payroll tax legislation, to ensure that workers would not be socked with what averages out to about a $1,000 tax increase right after the holidays. Senate leaders warned lawmakers to be prepared to work the weekend Thursday; Reid already set up one concrete vote Saturday morning on the House's version of the payroll tax bill, one Nevada Reps. Joe Heck and Mark Amodei supported, but which Rep. Shelley Berkley derided for starting to pare back unemployment benefits.
It's not expected to pass. But at least with the budget done, the lights in the Capitol will stay on as they slug this next issue out.