WASHINGTON — The government reopened its doors today after a battle-weary Congress approved a bipartisan measure to end a 16-day partial shutdown and avert the possibility of an economy-jarring default on U.S. obligations.
Early today, President Barack Obama signed the measure, which the House and Senate passed late Wednesday, ending a brawl with Republicans who tried to use the must-pass legislation to mount a last-ditch effort to derail the president’s landmark health care law and demand concessions on the budget.
The two U.S. House representatives for Robeson County, Richard Hudson and Mike McIntyre, cancelled out each other’s vote.
The White House directed all agencies to reopen promptly and in an orderly fashion. Furloughed federal employees across the country are expected to return to work today.
The impasse had shuttered national parks and monuments, and mostly closed down NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department. Critical functions of government went on as usual and most federal employees won’t see their paychecks delayed, but the closure and potential default weighed on the economy and spooked the financial markets.
There were signs early today that the federal government was slowly coming back to life. “We’re back from the #shutdown!” the Smithsonian Institution crowed on Twitter, announcing that museums would reopen today and the National Zoo in Washington on Friday.
Standard & Poor’s estimated the shutdown has taken $24 billion out of the economy, and the Fitch credit rating agency warned Tuesday that it was reviewing its AAA rating on U.S. government debt for a possible downgrade.
Obama and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill were the decisive winners in the fight, which was sparked by tea party Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who prevailed upon skeptical GOP leaders to use a normally routine short-term funding bill to “defund” the 2010 health care law known as Obamacare.
“We fought the good fight. We just didn’t win,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, conceded in a radio interview. He was given positive reviews from Republicans for his handling of the crisis, though it again exposed the tenuous grasp he holds over the fractious House GOP conference.
The agreement was brokered by the Senate’s top Democrat, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and its Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. They stepped in after the House was unable to coalesce around a Republican-only approach Tuesday.
The Senate approved the legislation by an 81-18 vote; the House followed suit by a tally of 285-144, with 87 Republicans in favor and 144 against, breaking an informal rule in which a majority of the majority party is supposed to carry legislation. Democrats unanimously supported the bill, even though it locks in funding at levels required by across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.
Hudson, whose 8th District includes most of Robeson County, said the agreement does not address the spending problems facing the country.
“Instead of continuing to kick the can down the road, we need to find long-term solutions that cut wasteful government spending, encourage job creation, and strengthen our economy,” he said. “… Today’s measure fails to address the harmful effects of Obamacare or eliminate special subsidies and exemptions for members of Congress and the politically connected. We should not and cannot let the president’s health care takeover burden our hard-working families, small businesses, and local communities … .”
McIntyre, a Lumberton native, said the pact buys time to continue to look for common ground.
“It is good that we will avoid an economic default and open the doors of government,” said McIntyre, whose 7th District includes a small slice of Robeson County. “However, we should continue bipartisan discussions with the goal of putting forth a long-term deficit reduction agreement to get our fiscal house in order and finding other areas of cooperation, including a balanced-budget amendment. “
The legislation would fund the government through Jan. 15 and permit it to borrow normally through Feb. 7, though Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew retains the capacity to employ accounting maneuvers to create wiggle room on the debt limit into mid-March or so.
The shutdown sent GOP approval ratings numbers reeling in public opinion polls and exasperated veteran lawmakers who saw it and the possibility of default as folly.
“After two long weeks, it is time to end this government shutdown. It’s time to take the threat of default off the table,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said before the vote. “It’s time to restore some sanity to this place.”
The bill’s passage was only a temporary truce that sets up another collision between Obama and Republicans over spending and borrowing early next year. It’s the second time this year that Congress has passed legislation to increase the government’s borrowing cap with few if any conditions on the president, reversing a 2011 precedent in which the threat of default was used to extract $2.1 trillion in spending cuts from a politically wounded Obama.
“With the shutdown behind us,” Obama said after the Senate vote, “we now have an opportunity to focus on a sensible budget that is responsible, that is fair and that helps hardworking people all across this country.”
At the same time, House-Senate talks will begin on a broader budget pact in hopes of curbing deficits and easing across-the-board budget cuts that have slammed the Pentagon and domestic agencies alike. Such agreements have proven elusive in the current era of divided government.
The Robesonian contributed to this story by including information from the offices of U.S. Reps. Richard Hudson and Mike McIntyre.