(With reports from the AP)
PROVIDENCE – A last minute budget deal, forged amid bluster and tough bargaining, averted an embarrassing federal shutdown and cut billions in spending — the first major test of the divided government voters ushered in five months ago.
Working late into the evening Friday, congressional and White House negotiators struck an agreement to pay for government operations through the end of September while trimming $38.5 billion in spending. Lawmakers then approved a days-long stopgap measure to keep the government running while the details of the new spending plan were written into legislation.
But in Rhode Island, it was wait-and-see Friday night.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, his cabinet and Department of Administration staff were preparing to work through the weekend to gauge the parameters of the stoppage and determine what the state needs to do in response.
“Nothing is going to be certain until the deed is done, one way or the other,” Chafee spokesman Mike Trainor told The Call Friday. “It’s just waiting and watching right now, and anticipating a fair amount of activity over the weekend if indeed at midnight the government does shut down.”
Trainor said a working group of Statehouse staffers participated along with their counterparts in the other 49 states in a conference call with the White House about the possibility of a shutdown and what exactly it would entail. The White House’s response to most questions, Trainor said, was “We’ll have to get back to you,” because the answer was not clear even to those in the corridors of power.
He said the governor started having staffers track the possibility of a shutdown back in February and the working group has been in contact with the state’s Congressional delegation and they have been developing contingency plans against a variety of possible scenarios of what a shutdown might look like.
Both of Rhode Island’s U.S. Senators, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, say they would forgo their salaries if there is a shutdown.
Reed said he would contribute the pay he would receive during the shutdown to the United Way, as he did when he was a congressman during the last shutdown in 1995.
"Our job is to keep the government working affectively,” Reed said in a press release. “If the government shuts down, Congress isn't doing its job and therefore shouldn't get paid. If Republicans carry out their threat to shut the government down, millions of workers, soldiers, contractors, and business people won't get paid. It is only fair for members of Congress to share in the hardship."
Reed said he supported a bill that passed the Senate that would prevent congress and the president from being paid during a shutdown and would not allow them to be reimbursed once government activity resumes. That measure stalled in the House of Representatives.
In a speech on the Senate floor Thursday night, Whitehouse told his colleagues, “We are facing some 8,000 federal workers being furloughed, millions more, including men and women in uniform, who will begin working without pay, projects will grind to a halt, people working under government contracts will stop, and there will be a real danger to our fragile economic recovery, that is just starting to gain steam. Why take that risk.”
Whitehouse called the Republican budget proposal a “Trojan Horse filled with Tea Party ideology, it is filled with an extreme right-wing political agenda to do things like eliminate Planned Parenthood and give polluters free rein in violation of the Clean Air Act.”
In his own Senate floor speech, Reed called the possibility of a shutdown “extraordinarily regrettable.”
The state’s senior senator said, “one of the problems we've had, frankly, is that the goal posts have been continuously shifting in terms of Republican proposals.
“The Republican members of the Appropriations Committee initially insisted on levels last year roughly a $20 billion cut, my recollection. Then this year, the House Appropriations Committee under Republican leadership proposed initially cuts of $33 billion from the fiscal year 2010 level. Days later, the Republican leadership decided that was not enough so then it became $60 billion with cuts in everything from E.P.A. water and sewer grants to low-income energy assistance programs, that are absolutely critical to working families. And also critical at a time when our economy is just beginning to regain some of the economic traction it had before.
“This approach, this draconian approach to cuts could very seriously undermine the emerging, not yet complete but emerging recovery,” Reed warned. He said the Republican plan is also “studded with special interest riders, social policy not fiscal policy. And, in fact, there is the impression sometimes that the deficit reduction claims are really just an excuse to try to advance not through the legislative process but through the appropriation process, through the threat of a shutdown very conservative social policies.”
"A government shutdown is not in the best interests of our country, will hurt our families and our economy, and a shutdown is completely avoidable because an agreement had been reached on budget numbers,” 1st District Rep. David Cicilline said in a written statement. “But extreme members of the Republican caucus have hijacked the budget process and are holding it up with controversial policies regarding women's health and the environment.
“Rhode Islanders and all Americans expect us to work together and do what's right for the future of our country,” Cicilline added. “These high-stakes political games undermine the public's confidence in government."
Rep. James Langevin said, "Allowing the government to shut down in the interest of political gamesmanship is the height of irresponsibility in the midst of a delicate economic recovery. Republicans demanded $61 billion in cuts that would be devastating to students in need of college aid, homeowners at risk of foreclosure, small businesses looking for loans and low-income families struggling to put food on the table.
“Unfortunately,” Langevin said, “some members are willing to unleash the serious economic damage a shutdown would cause to pursue a political agenda that has nothing to do with responsibly cutting costs. They have reneged on their offers and have consistently tried to add so-called ‘policy riders’ that limit health care services and harm the environment.
Even though a deal has been reached to avert a shutdown, actual approval of the deal won't come until mid-week.
"Today Americans of different beliefs came together again," President Barack Obama said from the White House Blue Room, a setting chosen to offer a clear view of the Washington Monument over his right shoulder.
The agreement — negotiated by the new Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner, the president and the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid — came as the administration was poised to shutter federal services, from national parks to tax-season help centers, and to send furlough notices to hundreds of thousands of federal workers. It was a prospect that all sides insisted they wanted to avoid but that at times seemed all but inevitable.
Shortly after midnight, White House budget director Jacob Lew issued a memo instructing the government's departments and agencies to continue their normal operations.
Boehner said the agreement came after "a lot of discussion and a long fight," and he won an ovation from his rank and file, including the new tea party adherents whose victories last November shifted control of the House to the GOP.
Reid declared the deal "historic."
The deal marked the end of a three-way clash of wills, but it also set the tone for coming confrontations over raising the government's borrowing limit, the 2012 budget and long-term deficit reduction.
At the end of the day, all sides claimed victory — Republicans for the sheer size of the spending cuts and Obama and Reid for jettisoning Republican policy initiatives that would have blocked certain environmental regulations and made changes in a federal program that provides family planning services.
Not all policy "riders" were struck. One provision in the final deal would ban the use of federal or local government funds to pay for abortions in the District of Columbia. A program dear to Boehner that lets District of Columbia students use federally funded vouchers to attend private schools also survived.
Republicans had also included language to deny federal funding to implement the year-old health care law. The deal only requires such a proposal to be voted on by the Senate where it is certain to fall short of the required 60 votes.
The deal came together after six grueling weeks as negotiators virtually dared each other to shut the government down. Boehner faced pressure from his rank and file to hew as closely to the $61 billion in cuts and the conservative policy positions that the House had approved earlier in the year.
At one point, Democrats announced negotiators had locked into a spending cut figure — $33 billion. But Boehner pushed back, publicly declaring there was no agreement. This week, during a meeting at the White House, Boehner said he wanted $40 billion. The final number fell just short of that.
In one dramatic moment, Obama called Boehner on Friday morning after learning that the outline of a deal they had reached with Reid in the Oval Office the night before was not reflected in the pre-dawn staff negotiations. The whole package was in peril.
According to a senior administration official, Obama told Boehner that they were the two most consequential leaders in the United States government and that if they had any hope of keeping the government open, their bargain had to be honored and could not be altered by staff. The official described the scene on condition of anonymity to reveal behind-the-scenes negotiations.
The accomplishment set the stage for even tougher confrontations. Republicans intend to pass a 2012 budget through the House next week that calls for sweeping changes in Medicare and Medicaid and would cut domestic programs deeply in an attempt to gain control over soaring deficits.
And the Treasury has told Congress it must vote to raise the debt limit by summer — a request that Republicans hope to use to force Obama to accept long-term deficit-reduction measures.