WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans conceded defeat Wednesday in their bitter budget fight with President Obama over the health-care law as the House and Senate approved last-minute legislation ending a 16-day government shutdown and extending federal borrowing power to avert a financial default with potentially worldwide economic repercussions.
With the Treasury Department warning that it could run out of money to pay U.S. obligations within a day, the Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday evening, 81-18, to approve a proposal hammered out by the chamber’s Republican and Democratic leaders. The House followed suit a few hours later, voting 285-144 to approve the Senate plan, which would fund the government through Jan. 15 and raise the $16.7 trillion debt limit through Feb. 7. Eighty-seven Republicans joined 198 Democrats in voting yes. All 144 no votes were Republicans.
“We fought the good fight. We just didn’t win,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said hours before the vote.
Shortly after the House vote, Obama signed the bill early Thursday.
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Earlier, after the Senate vote, he praised Congress but said he hoped the damaging standoff would not be repeated.
“We’ve got to get out of the habit of governing by crisis,” said Obama, who urged Congress to proceed not only with new budget negotiations, but with immigration changes and a farm bill as well. “We could get all these things done even this year, if everybody comes together in a spirit of, how are we going to move this country forward and put the last three weeks behind us?”
The result of the standoff that threatened the nation’s credit rating was a near total defeat for Republican conservatives, who had engineered the budget impasse as a way to strip the health-care law of funding even as registration for benefits opened Oct. 1 or, failing that, to win delays in putting the program into place.
As part of the deal struck Wednesday, a bipartisan House-Senate conference committee — co-chaired by Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. — is to work on larger budget issues. The panel’s task is to come up with a long-term blueprint for tax and spending policies over the next decade. The committee will have until Dec. 13 to complete its work and report to Congress.
This is the second high-profile budget negotiation role for Murray. In 2011, she was appointed to co-chair the so-called super committee that aimed to find $1.5 trillion in federal deficit reduction over 10 years. The failure of that committee to come to an agreement ultimately led to the budget cuts known as the sequester.
The shutdown, which began Oct. 1, sent Republican poll ratings plunging, cost the government billions of dollars and damaged the nation’s international credibility. Obama refused to compromise, leaving Republican leaders to beg him to talk, and to fulminate when he refused. For all that, Republicans got a slight tightening of income-verification rules for Americans accessing new health-insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act.
In a brief closed session with his Republican rank-and-file, Boehner told members to hold their heads high, go home, get some rest and think about how they could work better as a team.
Two weeks of relative cohesion broke down into near chaos Tuesday when Republican leaders twice failed to unite their troops behind a last-gasp effort to prevent a default on their own terms. By Wednesday, House conservatives were accusing more moderate Republicans of undercutting their position. Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a leading Republican voice for ending the fight, said Congress should have passed a bill to fund the government without policy strings attached weeks ago.
“That’s essentially what we’re doing now,” Dent said. “People can blame me all they want, but I was correct in my analysis and I’d say a lot of those folks were not correct in theirs.”
Boehner and his leadership team had long felt that they needed to allow their restive conference to pitch a battle over the president’s signature health-care law, a fight that had been brewing almost since the law was passed in 2010. Now, they hope the fever has broken, and they can negotiate on issues where they think they have the upper hand, such as spending cuts and changes to entitlement programs.
As Republican lawmakers left the closed meeting Wednesday, some were already thinking of the next fight.
“I’ll vote against it,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., referring to the Senate plan. “But that will get us into Round 2. See, we’re going to start this all over again.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader who was instrumental in ending the crisis, stressed that under the deal he had negotiated with the majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the across-the-board budget cuts extracted in the 2011 fiscal showdown remained in place over the objections of some Democrats, a slim reed that not even he claimed as a significant victory.
The deal, McConnell said, “is far less than many of us hoped for, quite frankly, but far better than what some had sought.”
“Now it’s time for Republicans to unite behind other crucial goals,” he added.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina took a swipe at his fellow Republican senators, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, as well as House members who linked government financing to defunding the health-care law, which is financed by its own designated revenues and spending cuts.
“Let’s just say sometimes learning what can’t be accomplished is an important long-term thing,” Burr said, “and hopefully for some of the members they’ve learned it’s impossible to defund mandatory programs by shutting down the federal government.”
While Cruz conceded defeat, he did not express contrition.
“Unfortunately, the Washington establishment is failing to listen to the American people,” he said as he emerged from a meeting of Senate Republicans called to ratify the agreement.
For hundreds of thousands of federal workers across the country furloughed from their jobs, the legislative deal meant an abrupt end to their forced vacation as the government comes back to life beginning Thursday.
Indeed, the White House’s budget office said late Thursday that federal workers should expect to return to work Thursday morning.
Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, instructed federal employees to follow the news and to check the Office of Personnel Management’s website for further updates about returning to work.
Material from McClatchy Newspapers, The Washington Post and The Associated Press is included in this report.