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Congress goes down to the wire to keep government working

WASHINGTON

The nation's lawmakers reached a last-minute budget deal Friday night, averting a government shutdown just minutes before crossing a deadline that would have shuttered federal facilities and forced hundreds of thousands of workers to be furloughed without pay.

"We have agreed to an historic amount of cuts for the remainder of this fiscal year, as well as a short-term bridge that will give us time to avoid a shutdown while we get that agreement through both houses and to the president," said a joint statement by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.

In a brief statement to reporters, Boehner said he was pleased that Republicans and Democrats have "come to an agreement that will in fact cut spending and keep our government open."

He added: "This has been a lot of discussion and a long fight. We fought to keep government spending down."

Negotiators agreed to spending cuts totaling $38.5 billion and had resolved differences in funding for groups like Planned Parenthood that had been holding up a deal for days.

Boehner said the two sides had agreed to a six-day "bridge" extension of the government's spending authority in order to turn the agreement's framework into legislation that will fund federal operations through the end of the 2011 fiscal year in September. He said the final vote on the package would take place in the middle of next week.

The agreement was reached after a flurry of negotiations throughout Friday evening that led to a nail-biting final hours while the shutdown clocked ticked down perilously close to the midnight deadline. It was reached in principle Friday evening and Reid and Boehner then had to sell the agreement to their members.

The Senate passed the stopgap spending bill late Friday, the House followed suit after midnight.

President Barack Obama said a last-minute deal with congressional leaders to avert a government shutdown happened because "Americans of different beliefs came together."

Obama said both sides had to give ground in reaching the bargain and some of the cuts that Democrats accepted "will be painful."

"Programs people rely on will be cut back," Obama said, adding that Americans had to begin to live within their means. "Needed infrastructure projects will be delayed."

A shutdown threatened to affect millions of people, endanger the recovery of the economy and embarrass the administration and Congress.

The developments came after Republicans and Democrats spent the day blaming one another for what would be the first lapse in government services brought on by Congress in 15 years. Senior congressional and White House aides exchanged offers on remaining sticking points.

On Friday, Republicans had said repeatedly that they had not agreed to a deal. Democrats used the day to bash the other side for refusing to budge on an issue tied to abortion.

"The House leadership, with the speaker, have a very clear choice to make, and they don't have much time," Reid said in an afternoon news conference. "They can keep their word and significantly cut the federal deficit, or they can shut down the American government over women's access to health care. If that sounds ridiculous, that's because it is ridiculous."

And so, with nothing left to do, Washington waited.

The potential shutdown quickly turned into a trending topic on social media. Twitter was cluttered with shutdown jokes and a thread of shutdown pickup lines. (Favorite: "Are you furloughnsome tonight?")

As agencies issued contingency plans for an "orderly" shutdown — the Commerce Department's instructions ran 68 pages — federal employees tried to work while monitoring for the latest news on budget negotiations. And they steeled themselves for the unthinkable: having to turn off their government-issued BlackBerrys. NASA tweeted that in the event of shutdown, it would not be tweeting

In the fall, Republicans retook the House on promises to rein in spending and deficits. In the aftermath of that election, lawmakers had promised to hold "adult conversations," dealing honestly with the country's budget.

But in the first big fight over the budget, both sides refused to give ground until the last moment.

As a result, Congress looked a bit like college students working on a term paper. They didn't start their big project until near the deadline — and then, when they truly got serious, found they had time only to ask for an extension.

In the process, frustration bubbled on both sides. Reid said the drawn-out negotiations had even provoked an outburst from Vice President Joe Biden as a White House meeting hit snags on Thursday night.

"Joe Biden wasn't flustered," Reid said when a reporter described Biden that way. "But he was damn mad."

On Friday, President Obama spoke in separate phone calls to Boehner and Reid. With the issue still unresolved, Obama postponed a family trip to Williamsburg, Va., that was planned for today and Sunday.

Administration officials remained tight-lipped on the status of talks Friday afternoon. Obama did not call congressional leaders to the White House as he did on Wednesday and Thursday.

The key sticking point, aides said, was the argument about groups such as Planned Parenthood, which was really an argument about abortion.

Planned Parenthood is the nation's largest abortion provider. In accordance with federal law, none of the money it gets from the government funds abortions. But the organization receives millions of federal dollars for nonabortion services for low-income people, including breast exams and Pap smears, cholesterol and blood pressure screenings, family planning and contraceptives.

Information from the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

Congress goes down to the wire to keep government working 04/09/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 9, 2011 1:32am]
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