An eleventh-hour deal crafted in the US Senate has been announced tonight to pull the United States back from the precipice of defaulting on its debt and to re-open the government until the middle of January next year.
“Our country came to the brink of disaster,” Senator Harry Reid, the Democrat majority leader, conceded announcing a compromise bill on the Senate floor. “It’s been a long challenging few weeks for Congress and the country,” Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, added, confirming the sealing of the package.
The bill still required passage by both the Senate and the House of Representatives before being sent for signature by President Barack Obama, perhaps as early as tonight. Crucially, Ted Cruz, the Tea Party senator from Texas said that he would not attempt to use parliamentary rules to gum up the vote in the Senate as some had feared.
"But," Boehner added, "blocking the bipartisan agreement reached today by members of the Senate will not be a tactic for us."
The apparent end to the crisis came just hours before a Thursday deadline when the US Treasury said it would run out of wiggle room to pay all its bills without an increase of the debt ceiling, including to holders of US Treasury bonds, raising the spectre of a potentially catastrophic debt default. The partial shutdown of the US government is already in its third week, with 350,000 federal governments workers furloughed at home without pay.
Yet the underlying squabbles are by no means resolved. The deal would set up a bi-partisan, bi-cameral committee to attempt one more time to settle - by Christmas - the broader range of spending and budget issues that have been so toxic in this town for so long. Because the funding for the government would only extend to mid-January and the debt ceiling increase until mid-February there is a risk the same drama will be playing out all over again a few months from now. “This isn’t the last crisis we are going to go through,” Senator John McCain of Arizona noted.
For now, the deal represents a white flag for conservative Republicans and the right-wing Tea Party, which achieved almost nothing of what they set out to achieve with this crisis, notably to pare back or delay President Obama’s healthcare overhaul legislation known as Obamacare. Put forward instead was an almost entirely “clean bill” with only slight amendments to the health law to guard against fraudulent claims for government help by citizens to pay premiums.
If privately jubilant, the White House declined to gloat particularly with the vote on the bill in the House still outstanding tonight. “There are no winners here,” spokesman Jay Carney said, noting the damage already done by the stand-off to the economy. “There is already a price that has been paid.”
Aides nonetheless seemed hopeful the bill would easily win passage in the Senate first. Thereafter in the House it was likely to win support from almost all the minority Democrats with a rump of moderate Republicans, leaving the Tea Party wing out in the cold. Mr Obama had all along insisted he would not be held to “ransom” by the Tea Party unhappy with Obamacare which is law already.
Efforts by John Boehner, the House speaker, to push a tougher version of his own through the House had fallen apart late Tuesday night, which passed the ball to the Senate. He was unable to bring all of his conservative flank on board for his bill, a humiliating spectacle for a man who holds one of the most powerful positions in Washington.
Republican recriminations were already beginning for its misbegotten tactics. “This package is a joke compared to what we could have gotten if we had a more reasonable approach,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina complained. “For the party, this is a moment of self-evaluation, we are going to assess how we got here. If we continue down this path, we are really going to hurt the Republican Party long-term.”
It was Kelly Ayotte, a Republican senator from New Hampshire who was propelled to Washington with considerable Tea Party help, who broke the news to reporters crushed into a corridor outside the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. A bi-partisan deal to end the long fiscal crisis was done, said Ms Ayotte.
That was fitting. By nearly everyone’s account, women in the Senate had played an outsize role in setting in train the negotiations that allowed for what seemed to be the breakthrough.
Even some of the oldest members of the male guard admit it. “The women are taking over,” Senator John McCain quipped the other day.
While it was Mr Reid and his Republican opposite number Mitch McConnell who put their names to the Senate package, its origins could be traced back to a framework solution negotiated by an informal, bi-partisan group of 13 senators, about half of whom had been women. (There are 20 female senators, one-fifth of the full chamber.) It was risky political business, particularly for Ms Ayotte, with her Tea Party genetics, as well as for another closely involved, Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska who won re-election as a write-in after losing her primary race to a Tea Party rival. “Politics be damned,” she declared earlier this week.
Assuming the Senate solution makes it all the way to Barack Obama’s desk, history may give greatest credit, however, to Senator Susan Collins, a reliably moderate Republican from Maine, who moved first to challenge colleagues from both sides of the aisle to put politics aside and chart Washington out of its mess.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that women were so heavily involved in trying to end this stalemate,” Senator Collins said. “Although we span the ideological spectrum, we are used to working together in a collaborative way.”
By David Usborne