Long meetings, dashed hopes, but finally a deal

By Alan Fram

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, April 10 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this photo taken Friday, April 8, 2011, House Speaker, Republican John Boehner of Ohio, walks past the media on his way to a Republican caucus meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington. Perilously close to a midnight deadline, the White House and congressional leaders reached an agreement late Friday to cut billions of dollars in spending to avoid the first government shutdown in 15 years.

Alex Brandon, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — There was barely an hour left before the midnight padlocking of government doors. In a Capitol basement meeting room, House Speaker John Boehner was telling exhausted fellow Republicans that a deal to avert a shutdown was nearly finished when an aide alerted him that staff had completed the final details and the agreement was complete.

"He said we don't have the Senate and we don't have the White House, and it's a good day's work," said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., who was in the closed-door session and later described the scene.

And with that, Republicans clapped: "Not euphoria," Kingston said, reflecting fatigue and the realization of a long year of intense budget battling lay ahead. But for now, a week of top-level White House meetings, round-the-clock bargaining by staff and lots of emotional hills and valleys had produced a bipartisan accord to trim $38.5 billion in spending over this fiscal year's remaining six months and head off a federal shutdown that both parties feared could hurt their standing with voters.

To get there, the two sides followed a twisting path, according to accounts offered Friday and Saturday by Obama administration, House GOP and Senate Democratic aides who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe confidential talks.

The path toward a spending collision began in February, when the new GOP majority pushed a bill through the House over Democratic opposition, cutting this year's spending by $61 billion. The measure included dozens of provisions curbing enforcement of environmental laws, restricting federal aid for family planning and other limitations.

That bill was rejected by the Democratic-run Senate.

With no permanent legislation in place financing federal agencies for the remaining six months of the government's fiscal year, Congress started enacting bills cutting spending and providing enough money for the government to function for just weeks at a time.

With the most recent stopgap measure expiring April 8, lawmakers worried about a public perception that they couldn't do their most basic work began looking for a way to end their impasse.

Two weeks ago, bipartisan talks started in earnest, with bargainers initially focusing on finding $33 billion in cuts. Shy of a deal and with a potential government shutdown looming, Obama invited leaders of both parties to a White House bargaining session last Tuesday.

It was clear that that session had not gone well when Boehner issued a written statement afterward saying, "We can still avoid a shutdown, but Democrats are going to need to get serious about cutting spending — and soon." Reid fired back, "I hope the Republicans do what the country needs, not what they believe the tea party wants," a reference to the influential conservatives who helped the GOP gain power in last November's elections.

Those comments set the tone for an acrimonious week.

Democrats repeatedly accused Republicans of seeking harmful spending cuts, trying to use the bill to restrict programs for women's health and constantly making new demands every time a deal seemed near. Republicans said Democrats were not serious about controlling federal spending, and accused them of holding the military hostage when the Senate refused to consider a spending-cut bill that would have financed the Pentagon for the rest of the year.

Another meeting followed Wednesday night in the White House dining room, where at one point staff was asked to leave the room, according to a senior Senate Democratic leadership aide. Boehner wasn't proposing a specific figure for cuts, that aide said, and was pressing for the inclusion of policy restrictions that Republicans wanted.

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