WASHINGTON – Congress arrived at an agreement Wednesday after weeks of wrangling to reopen the federal government and raise the nation’s debt ceiling that left a bitter taste in the mouths of conservatives.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, announced that a bipartisan deal had finally been reached shortly after noon – a day before the government’s borrowing capacity was expected to expire, raising the prospects of default.
The sides agreed to a temporary spending bill that will keep the government open through Jan. 15 and permit the Treasury to borrow the funds necessary to pay the nation’s bills through Feb. 7. It also sets the stage for bicameral negotiations over federal spending and taxation.
It passed the Senate easily, 81-18. The “no” votes came from Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), and David Vitter (R-La.).
The bill then went over to the House, where it passed 285-144 with the support of all 198 Democrats voting and 87 Republicans. The “no” votes stood at 144 GOPs, including House Budget Committee Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who broke with the rest of leadership.
A surprising “aye” vote came from Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of the conservatives who met with Cruz in the basement of a Capitol Hill Mexican restaurant Monday night. Cotton is trying to unseat Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) next year.
The House adjourned until Monday.
The original reason for the contretemps – the desire of Tea Party conservatives in the House and Senate to either defund or delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act – better known as Obamacare – is barely mentioned in the deal. The only provision dealing with the healthcare reform law requires families seeking federal subsidies to purchase health insurance to prove they qualify for the benefit.
The bill legislation also provides that federal workers who have been furloughed for more than two weeks will receive back pay.
Ultimately, the final agreement resembles a settlement the two sides could have reached more than two weeks ago – before the government partially shut down on Oct. 1 for lack of spending authority.
McConnell, who stepped in when the House failed to develop a compromise acceptable to both parties, acknowledged that the result was “far less than many of us hoped for,’’ but expressed satisfaction that budget cuts implemented as a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011, familiarly known as sequestration, remain intact.
“This has been a long challenging few weeks for Congress and for the country,’’ McConnell said. “It’s my hope that today we can put some of the most urgent issues behind us.’’
Reid said the compromise “will provide our economy with the stability it desperately needs.’’
“After weeks spent facing off across a partisan divide that often seemed too wide to cross, our country came to the brink of a disaster,’’ Reid said. “But in the end, political adversaries set aside their differences and disagreements to prevent that disaster.’’
The measure carried the full support of the White House.
“The president believes that the bipartisan agreement announced by the leaders of the United States Senate will reopen the government and remove the threat of economic brinksmanship that has already harmed middle-class families, American businesses and our country’s economic standing in the world,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
Obama credited Reid and McConnell for acting swiftly “to end this shutdown and protect the full faith and credit of the United States of America.”
But some lawmakers who took a hard line on federal spending and sought to kill Obamacare expressed disgust with the final product. Cruz, who led the fight against the Affordable Care Act and attempted to tie the Senate in knots to force Democrats to accept some changes, said that “Washington’s indifference to the plight of the American people has never been more apparent’’ as a result of the agreement.
“Countless Americans all over the nation are being notified their premiums are skyrocketing,’’ Cruz said. “Others are losing jobs or seeing their work hours reduced, and thousands upon thousands are losing their healthcare plans altogether. All because of Obamacare.’’
Under Obamacare, every American is required to purchase health insurance, with those financially unable to do so receiving federal assistance. They will be able to purchase coverage through what is known as the Health Insurance Marketplace. In a year, large companies will be required to provide full-time employees with coverage.