WASHINGTON — At $78.5 billion below the president’s Fiscal 2011 request, this was the deepest cut in federal spending agreed to (by unadjusted dollar amount) in U.S. history, and the first part of it sailed through the Senate with both Minnesota senators voting in favor. In the House, the vote was 348-70, with everyone in the Minnesota delegation but Keith Ellison and Michele Bachmann voting yes.
Yet it wasn’t a sure bet the government wouldn’t shut down until about 9:45 p.m., when it became clear House Republicans had the votes for a compromise that wasn’t even fully agreed to until 10:30, and won’t be spelled out on paper until perhaps Monday.
After all the votes had been taken, a senior Senate aide spelled out the differences: From the time that negotiations began in earnest, Republicans and Democrats were never really more than $3 billion apart (though they differed in how they’d pay for that amount of cuts), but they were miles apart on policy riders, the biggest one of which was defunding Planned Parenthood and other Title X family planning centers.
And the brinkmanship displayed in these negotiations by both sides — actually streching just over the midnight Friday deadline before a deal was approved — over that small a difference, has analysts worried about even bigger budget fights down the road.
“If you think this shutdown cliffhanger is bad, wait till you see what’s ahead in September,” said Stan Collender, a budget expert and columnist for Roll Call. “We’re going to go through this whole thing again in September over the [Fiscal Year 2012] appropriations. And it may well be much worse given that the proposed changes coming from the House will be larger than the ones they wanted for FY11.”
Nevermind $3 billion. In their Fiscal 2012 budget, Republicans completely wipe out the health care law and financial reform, the two signature laws of the last two years. Liberal Democrats including Ellison countered with a proposal that includes a public health insurance option and repeal of the Bush tax cuts.
“I am ready for a big fight, the kind that will change the arc of history,” Bachmann wrote on the conservative blog RedState.com. “And, I’m hoping that when it comes to issues like the debt ceiling, ObamaCare, and the 2012 budget, House Republicans will take the lead, draw a line in the sand and not back down from the fight.”
Unlike this vote, where Bachmann was one of just 28 Republicans in opposition, several others have said they’ll draw a line in the sand and shut down the government without massive concessions, including but not limited to defunding the health reform law. And unlike today, where many on Capitol Hill said a deal was inevitable, serious questions are being raised about whether and FY 2012 is even possible without a protracted shutdown.
Before that though, there will need to be a vote to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, and that’s one vote that many in Congress don’t want to take without significant concessions — Republicans have been floating a spending cap or balanced budget agreement, both options that Democrats have so far said are flatly unacceptable. Current estimates have the nation running up against its $14.924 trillion debt limit possibly by May 15.
“I’m sure there will be continued urgent discussions on the debt ceiling, starting now,” said Rep. Erik Paulsen. “You know, we only have a month.”
Where things stand now
As of this moment though, the government is funded through April 15, after the Senate and House cleared a one-week continuing resolution that cuts $2 billion. The full deal, cutting the rest of the agreed-on funds and funding the federal government through Sept. 30, will be written into legislation over the weekend, likely released Monday and voted on Wednesday or Thursday.
“This agreement between Democrats and Republicans, on behalf of all Americans, is on a budget that invests in our future while making the largest annual spending cut in our history,” said President Obama. “Like any worthwhile compromise, both sides had to make tough decisions and give ground on issues that were important to them. And I certainly did that.
“Some of the cuts we agreed to will be painful. Programs people rely on will be cut back. Needed infrastructure projects will be delayed. And I would not have made these cuts in better circumstances. But beginning to live within our means is the only way to protect those investments that will help America compete for new jobs — investments in our kids’ education and student loans; in clean energy and life-saving medical research. We protected the investments we need to win the future.”
Republicans, for the most part, were pleased with the deal.
“It’s not perfect, but we kept our goal of not shutting down the government and cutting spending,” said Paulsen, following the closed-door meeting with Speaker John Boehner and the Republican caucus, a meeting that was frequently interrupted by cheering loud enough to hear outside.
The deal itself
While details of the agreement still must be written into actual legislation, here are bullet points of the main deal framework:
- A cut of $2 billion in the continuing resolution, and a further $36.5 billion next week.
- Some $2.5 billion of that money is being pulled back from unallocated transportation dollars that could have been used on earmarked projects, though it’s unclear which projects were unofficially in line for that money. The rest of the funding comes in a combination of pull-backs from mandatory spending and across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending (except Defense), but where they’ll fall has yet to be determined. More on that next week.
- The Senate will hold a stand-alone vote to fully defund the health care law. It’s subject to a 60-vote requirement and is expected to fail.
- The Senate will also vote to defund Title X family planning organizations, including Planned Parenthood. It’s also subject to a 60-vote requirement, and both sides expect that to fail too. A top Senate aide said that was the largest sticking point in the negotiations, and the last major point to be cleared up.
- No money can be used to transfer prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to prisons in America. That provision from the House GOP’s original budget will be maintained, word for word. So Gitmo stays open, and the president has for now officially and fully conceded to abandon his campaign promise to close it.
- Both the health care law implementation and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will have arms-length audits done on them.
- Money in the health care law that could have been used to hire additional IRS agents is now gone.
- Speaker Boehner got his biggest educational priority, school vouchers in the District of Columbia.
- The deal also continues the policy that D.C.’s own tax dollars can’t be used for abortions.
- Language that House Republicans wanted restricting the Environmental Protection Agency on climate change did not make it in.
- There will not be any provision to defund NPR, which also would have defunded and possibly obliterated American Public Media’s syndicated programming. That’s out.
The art of the deal
Inside a room in the basement of the Capitol, Boehner told his members he’d gotten them the best deal he could get without shutting the government down. Less than three hours later, splitting 208-28, Republicans agreed with him.
“I think the Speaker did a terrific job,” said Rep. John Kline. “We did not get everything we wanted, but when you consider that we’ve got the majority of the House, but Democrats have a majority in the Senate and Barack Obama in the White House, I think Speaker Boehner did a great job.”
“There are many wins in this agreement,” agreed Paulsen. “You know, from my standpoint, we only control one third of the government, but we win 79 percent of what we were asking for, you know, that’s progress.”
To be sure, there was not unanimous agreement on this deal from within the ranks of House Republicans, but despite rumors of a large-scale revolt against their leadership, just 28 of them opposed the short-term continuing resolution on the deal. Bachmann, as promised, was one of them.
“The deal that was reached tonight is a disappointment for me and for millions of Americans who expected $100 billion in cuts, who wanted to make sure their tax dollars stopped flowing to the nation’s largest abortion provider, and who wanted us to defund ObamaCare,” Bachmann said. “Instead, we’ve been asked to settle for $39 billion in cuts, even as we continue to fund Planned Parenthood and the implementation of ObamaCare. Sadly, we’re missing the mandate given us by voters last November, and for that reason I voted against the continuing resolution.”
Bachmann actually walked out of the briefing early, followed minutes later by Iowa Rep. Steve King, who told reporters the GOP “tossed its knife into the weeds” before a knife fight, and should have leveraged a shutdown to extract further cuts.
There was discomfort on the Democratic side as well — Amy Klobuchar, Al Franken, Collin Peterson and Tim Walz all told MinnPost today that they were prepared to sacrifice things they didn’t want to sacrifice to keep the government running. And in the end, the only Minnesota Democrat who voted no was Ellison.
“[House] voted to keep govt open for 5 days. Contains deep cuts ($2B) but not anti-women & anti-clean air riders. I voted no. Jobs, not cuts,” wrote Ellison on Twitter shortly after the vote. “House could have done this deal days ago, and avoid the drama. Rs needed to push social agenda.”