After shutting down the U.S. government for 16 days and driving the nation toward the brink of default, a chastened Congress voted late Wednesday to reopen federal agencies, call hundreds of thousands of civil servants back to work and raise the $16.7 trillion debt limit.
President Barack Obama signed the measure shortly after 12:30 a.m. today, reopening parks and monuments across the nation, restoring government services and putting furloughed federal employees back on the job.
"Employees should expect to return to work in the morning," Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said in a statement.
An agreement struck by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., ended a stalemate created last month, when hardline conservatives pushed GOP leaders to use the threat of shutdown to block a landmark expansion of federally funded health coverage.
That campaign succeeded mainly in undermining popular support for the Republican Party, however. By late Wednesday, dozens of anxious GOP lawmakers were ready to give Obama almost exactly what he requested months ago: a bill to fund the government and increase the Treasury Department's borrowing power with no strings attached.
"We've been locked in a fight over here, trying to bring government down to size, trying to do our best to stop Obamacare," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told a Cincinnati radio station. "We fought the good fight. We just didn't win."
The Senate overwhelmingly ratified the deal Wednesday evening, 81 to 18, with more than half of Senate Republicans voting yes.
A few hours later, the House followed suit, approving the measure 285 to 144. Eighty-seven Republicans joined a united Democratic caucus in approving the measure, allowing Congress to meet a critical Treasury Department deadline with one day to spare.
Enforcement of the debt limit would be suspended until Feb. 7, setting up another confrontation over the national debt sometime in March, independent analysts estimated. Meanwhile, federal agencies would be funded through Jan. 15, when they might shut down again unless lawmakers resolve a continuing dispute over deep automatic spending cuts known as the sequester.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., was to have breakfast this morning with her House counterpart, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to start a new round of talks aimed at averting another crisis. Obama repeated his vow to work with Republicans to rein in a national debt that remains at historically high levels.
"With the shutdown behind us and budget committees forming, 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," Obama said at the White House.
Few held out hope that the talks would yield an ambitious plan to overhaul the tax code or restructure federal health and retirement programs, the biggest drivers of future borrowing. But there were signs that Republicans may be more inclined to compromise and less inclined to follow what Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., called "the fringe elements" of the GOP.
"The reality is there's a much larger population within our caucus that recognizes reality for what it is," said Schock, who represents the iconic middle-America town of Peoria. "At the end of the day, whatever we pass will have to be a bipartisan bill. The sooner that our conference recognizes that we're going to have to negotiate with the other side, the more we can get done."
The fight over the health care law originated on the Senate side of the Capitol, with Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, as well as former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican who now heads the conservative Heritage Foundation. Cruz and Lee voted against Wednesday's agreement, as did GOP presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
However, Boehner and the Republican-controlled House waged the fiercer battle, passing bill after bill to defund, delay and otherwise undercut the Affordable Care Act, only to watch those bills die in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Cruz rejected the idea that Republicans had won nothing during the six-week fight. While the measure contained just one small adjustment to the health care law — strengthening safeguards against fraud among recipients of federal health insurance subsidies — Cruz said the debate succeeded in calling attention to the harm the law is causing consumers, employers and the U.S. economy.
"We saw the House of Representatives take a courageous stand, listening to the American people," Cruz said. "Had Senate Republicans united and supported House Republicans, the outcome of this, I believe, would have been very, very different."
Still, the price the House paid for waging what many Republicans saw as an unwinnable fight was ultimately devastating. Boehner had counseled against shutting down the government as recently as late August, fearing a backlash among voters.
Democrats, for their part, quietly recorded a partisan victory. But after a shutdown and debt-limit fight estimated to have sucked as much as $20 billion out of the U.S. economy, there was no celebration.
"I'm tired," Reid said after the Senate voted Wednesday night. "Concluding this crisis is historic. But let's be honest: This was pain inflicted on the nation for no good reason."