By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun
12:31 AM EDT, October 17, 2013
A bipartisan deal to reopen the government and extend the nation's $16.7 trillion debt ceiling into early next year won overwhelming support in Congress late Wednesday, allowing tens of thousands of federal employees in Maryland to return to work starting Thursday.
The legislation reopens federal agencies for three months, until Jan. 15, and raises the debt ceiling until Feb. 7, ending an impasse that badly bruised Republicans but left President Barack Obama's controversial health care law intact. The agreement was struck hours before the U.S. Treasury Department would have lost its power to borrow money.
"We can begin to lift this cloud of uncertainty and unease from our businesses and from the American people," Obama said. "There is a lot of work ahead of us, including our need to earn back the trust of the American people that has been lost over the last few weeks."
The Senate approved the agreement, 81-18, sending it to the House of Representatives, which passed it on a 285-144 vote. Obama signed the measure early Thursday morning and his administration told federal employees to expect to return to work on Thursday.
Despite the significance of ending the shutdown that began on Oct. 1 and avoiding a default on U.S. financial obligations, the proposal set up yet another budget battle next year that could have even more important consequences for Maryland and other states with close economic ties to the federal government.
Lawmakers are already preparing for that fight.
"The lesson from this is that the public is furious with us," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who voted for the agreement. "The only silver lining from this experience is that those who felt that no compromise would be acceptable now know that's not true."
The legislation would reopen federal parks, put scientists back on the job at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and reopen the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration.
But economists said the short-term nature of the measure will do little to ease the uncertainty that many industries have complained about for years.
"The further into the future that people can peer, the bolder their economic actions are in the near term," said Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive of the Sage Policy Group.
Maryland has been particularly vulnerable to the shutdown, with 314,000 residents — a tenth of the state's workforce — employed by the federal government and another 250,000 working for federal contractors. State officials say Maryland lost $5 million a day in revenue since agencies closed.
Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said in a statement that federal employees should expect to return to work Thursday.
In the end, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky closed a deal to end the stalemate after an effort by House Republicans to craft their own proposal collapsed late Tuesday. Many Republicans acknowledged their party extracted little, if anything, of significance for their effort.
"The House has fought with everything it has to convince the president of the United States to engage in bipartisan negotiations aimed at addressing our country's debt and providing fairness for the American people under Obamacare," House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said in a statement.
"That fight will continue," he said.
Polls indicate Republicans were damaged far more by the budget debacle, which began with demands from conservatives to delay or strip funding for key provisions of Obamacare. Thousands of people began enrolling for health insurance under the law Oct. 1, despite technical problems that were largely overshadowed by the funding fight.
None of those demands made it into the final agreement.
The only change to the health care law is a provision requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that it is checking the income of Americans who receive subsidies to buy insurance through the law. Democrats said they had no objections to that measure because it largely repeated language already in the law.
Negotiations on the proposal got underway in earnest after an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found the public blamed the GOP for the shutdown more than Democrats by a 22-point margin.
Maryland's only Republican in Congress, Rep. Andy Harris, said Wednesday he would not support the proposal because it did nothing to reduce the federal budget deficit. His early announcement was an indication GOP leaders were not pressuring rank-and-file Republicans to support the agreement.
"I had hoped we would not just be kicking the can down the road," the Baltimore County lawmaker said. "And that's all this bill does."
Under the legislation, the nation's debt limit would be suspended until Feb. 7 to allow continued borrowing. Treasury officials would be able to use so-called "extraordinary measures" to temporarily pay bills after that date, meaning that the next debt ceiling crunch would probably not occur until the spring.
The agreement also includes several provisions particularly significant for Maryland.
Furloughed federal workers will receive retroactive pay, a measure that several lawmakers from the region — including Cardin — pushed to include. Paying those workers for lost time will go a long way toward limiting the economic impact of the shutdown, economists say.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Cardin announced Wednesday that the agreement would also allow federal employees to receive a 1 percent raise in January that Obama had previously called for. Federal worker pay has been frozen for three years.
"The promise of a modest pay raise and back pay for furloughed government employees are good first steps in recognizing the value of federal workers," said Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "They have been the targets of unending attacks."
On the other hand, the deal made no changes to the deep federal budget cuts known as sequestration, despite a last-minute effort by Democrats to soften the impact. The measure's timing will set up an end-of-the-year clash in Congress over whether the sequestration cuts will continue for another year.
Some lawmakers hope to trade those cuts for reductions in entitlement spending.
"That's a fulcrum where maybe we can make some more gains toward strengthening our country," Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said of the brewing year-end budget fight. "There's actually some bipartisan support for that kind of thing happening."
But others viewed the short-term agreement warily, arguing lawmakers were just as likely to wind up in a stalemate again in December. And some analysts said the short-term extension would continue the uncertainty that contractors and federal employees have endured for more than two years.
Mei Xu, CEO of Chesapeake Bay Candle, said she made a similar point at a White House meeting with business leaders earlier this month. Xu said the company wants to add a third shift at its Glen Burnie facility but is hesitant to do so out of concern that Washington could roil the economy with another showdown.
"When you have that kind of deadline, it's always a bad psychological thing for customers," Xu said. "Any kind of a standoff is a sign that our government is not working."
Nearly 90 percent of Marylanders said they were concerned about the shutdown's impact on the U.S. economy, according to a poll to be released Thursday by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies. Nearly 6 in 10 approve of the job Obama is doing, a 6 percentage point drop since January, the poll showed.
Conservative lawmakers in both chambers vowed to continue their fight in the next budget battle coming this winter.
"This is Washington at its worst," Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, said shortly before the Senate vote.
Democrats chastised Republicans for shutting down the government for more than two weeks in their bid to kill Obamacare.
"We've ended up just where we started," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, "but at a cost, and it never should have been this way."
The Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this article.
Terms of the deal
• Extends the nation's debt ceiling until Feb. 7
• Reopens federal agencies until Jan. 15
• Provides retroactive pay for furloughed federal employees
• Creates committee to hammer out long-term budget agreement
• Requires government to certify that it is checking the income of people who receive insurance subsides through Obamacare
How they voted
Rep. Andy Harris, R: No
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D: Yes
Rep. John Sarbanes, D: Yes
Rep. Donna F. Edwards, D: Yes
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D: Yes
Rep. John Delaney, D: Yes
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D: Yes
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D: Yes
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D: Yes
Sen. Ben Cardin, D: Yeshris Van Hollen, D: Yes
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D: Yes
Sen. Ben Cardin, D: Yes
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