WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and congressional leaders reached a historic, last-minute agreement just before a midnight deadline to slash about $38 billion in federal spending and avert the first federal government shutdown in 15 years.
Obama hailed the deal as "the biggest annual spending cut in history." John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, said that over the next decade it would cut government spending by $500 billion, and won an ovation from his rank and file — conservative tea party adherents among them.
"Today Americans of different beliefs came together again," Obama said from the White House Blue Room, a setting chosen to offer a clear view of the Washington Monument over his right shoulder.
Amid the biggest clash yet between Democrats and the resurgent Republicans who control the House, Obama had warned that a shutdown would damage the economy's recovery by putting an estimated 800,000 government employees out of work.
The political stakes of a shutdown were huge ahead of next year's presidential and congressional elections. During the last government shutdown during Bill Clinton's presidency, Republicans got most of the blame in — but there was no assurance that would have happened again.
Since taking control of the House in January, Republicans have vowed to slash what they described as out-of-control spending and curb the federal deficit. Democrats accused Republicans of wanting to cut vital government services and pushing a social agenda, while Republicans said Democrats weren't serious about cutting spending.
The deal came together after six grueling weeks and an outbreak of budget brinksmanship over the past few days as the two sides sought to squeeze every drop of advantage in private talks.
"This is historic, what we've done," agreed Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the third man involved in negotiations that ratified a new era of divided government.
Obama, Boehner and Reid announced the agreement less than an hour before government funding was due to run out. The shutdown would have closed national parks and other popular services, though the military would have stayed on duty and other essential operations such as air traffic control would have continued.
The Democrats and the White House rebuffed numerous Republican attempts to curtail the reach of the Environmental Protection Agency and sidetracked their demand to deny federal funds to Planned Parenthood, which provides family planning and other medical services.
Anti-abortion lawmakers did succeed in winning a provision to ban the use of government funds to pay for abortions in the Washington capital district.
Lawmakers raced to pass an interim measure to prevent a shutdown, however brief, and keep the federal machinery running for the next several days. The Senate acted within minutes. The House worked past midnight, so the federal government was to be technically unfunded for a short period of time, but there would be little — if any — practical impact
Reid, Obama and Boehner all agreed a shutdown posed risks to an economy still recovering from the worst recession in decades.
But there were disagreements aplenty among the principal players in an early test of divided government — Obama in the White House, fellow Democrats in control in the Senate and a new Republican majority in the House bolstered by conservative tea party-affiliated freshmen.
For much of the day, Reid and Boehner disagreed about what the disagreement was about.
"Republicans want to shut down our nation's government because they want to make it harder to get cancer screenings," he said. "They want to throw women under the bus."
Boehner said repeatedly that wasn't the case — it was spending cuts that divided two sides.
"Most of the policy issues have been dealt with, and the big fight is about spending," he said. "When will the White House and when will Senate Democrats get serious about cutting federal spending?"
By midday Friday, 12 hours before the funding would run out, most federal employees had been told whether they had been deemed essential or would be temporarily laid off in the event of a shutdown.
Obama canceled his scheduled travel plans and kept in touch with both Boehner and Reid.
The standoff began several weeks ago, when the new Republican majority in the House passed legislation to cut $61 billion from federal spending and place numerous curbs on the government.
In the weeks since, the two sides have alternately negotiated and taken time out to pass interim measures.
For Congress and Obama there are even tougher struggles still ahead — over a Republican budget that would remake entire federal programs and a vote to raise the nation's debt limit.1 comment on this story
Republicans intend to pass a 2012 budget through the House next week that calls for sweeping changes in health care entitlement programs 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.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Andrew Taylor, Alan Fram, Julie Pace and Ben Feller contributed to this story.