WASHINGTON — Senate leaders agreed to a deal Monday evening that is almost certain to avert a federal government shutdown, a prospect that had unexpectedly arisen when congressional leaders deadlocked over disaster relief funding.
After days of brinkmanship reminiscent of the budget battles that have consumed Washington this year, key senators clinched a compromise that would provide less money for disaster relief than Democrats sought but would also strip away spending cuts that Republicans demanded. The pact, which the Senate approved 79-12 and the House is expected to ratify next week, is expected to keep federal agencies open until Nov. 18.
"It will be a win for everyone," said Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, D-Nev.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called the plan "a reasonable way to keep the government operational."
Aides to House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said he will support the compromise.
The spending battle marked the third time this year that congressional acrimony has brought the government to the edge of calamity. In April, Boehner and President Barack Obama reached a deal on funding for 2011 about 90 minutes before a government shutdown was to begin. On Aug. 2, just hours before the deadline, Congress gave final approval to legislation lifting the government's borrowing authority, averting a partial shutdown and the potential for a default on the federal debt.
Although this week's fight ended with days, rather than hours, to spare, it drained many in Congress, who thought it was a senseless fight. Reid summed up the feeling of many lawmakers when he quoted Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who said there was too little money in dispute to raise the specter of a shutdown and to halt payments to those affected by natural disasters.
"Let's fight when there's something to fight about," Reid quoted Isakson as saying during a speech on the Senate floor.
At issue was a dispute over how to fund disaster relief, a concern that was heightened in late August after an earthquake struck central Virginia and Hurricane Irene caused flooding in the Northeast.
Although Democrats said the Federal Emergency Management Agency needed more funding, they agreed to accept a Republican plan to spend $3.65 billion in disaster relief money, $1 billion of which would have gone toward the budget for the current fiscal year, which ends on Friday.
Republicans, concerned about adding to the federal deficit, refused to support the funding unless it was accompanied by $1.5 billion in cuts. They targeted an auto loan program popular with Democrats, leading to the standoff.
The showdown between the two sides was averted on Monday, when FEMA said it could make ends meet through the end of the week. That led to an agreement that calls for the agency and other government disaster relief programs to forgo the $1 billion in proposed funding for this week.
Beginning Saturday and running to Nov. 18, FEMA can begin to tap the remaining $2.65 billion for ongoing efforts.
Some lawmakers from hard-hit states are unhappy with the compromise, saying that it would result in a slight delay in processing aid to victims and that the overall total of FEMA funding wouldn't be enough to account for the damage caused by the disasters.
"They would delay the process by punting back to the House," said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. The deal "also stripped $1 billion in disaster relief and provides less emergency funding for Missourians in the wake of record flooding and tornadoes," he added.
Although the agreement lifts the imminent specter of a government shutdown, it will not resolve the underlying fight over how much FEMA needs to help disaster victims and whether that money must be offset with spending cuts.
The White House has said FEMA will need $4.6 billion for the next fiscal year — a figure many Democrats say underestimates the agency's needs.
Democrats will push to fully fund FEMA's request and perhaps broaden it during negotiations over spending for the rest of the year.