Senate approves deal to end shutdown, raise debt ceiling

Greg Nash

Congress moved Wednesday to end the government shutdown and prevent a possible default as the Senate in a bipartisan vote approved a deal worked out by the chamber's leaders.

The Senate voted 81-18 to send the measure to the House, which is expected to approve it later tonight. President Obama has said he will sign the bill, which would fund the government until Jan. 15 and raise the debt ceiling until Feb. 7.

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All 18 no votes came from Republicans, at it included a trio of senators seen as possible 2016 presidential candidates: Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.). 

Nervous markets rallied during the day on the news of the deal, which came a day after Fitch threatened to downgrade the U.S. and after House Republican efforts to draft a rival plan collapsed Tuesday evening.

The government is expected to re-open on Thursday, 17 days after the shutdown began and the day set by the Treasury Department as the deadline for raising the debt ceiling.

The failure of House Republicans to move a final bill followed their decision to demand an end to funding for ObamaCare, a decision that led to the shutdown the same day the new law’s exchanges began enrollment.

The only change to ObamaCare in the bill was to set up a process to verify the income claims of people applying for federal health insurance subsidies. Democrats viewed the concession, which directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to verify applicants are eligible for premium tax credits prior to making them available, as a fig leaf.

Some Republicans this week have acknowledged that decision was a political disaster for their party. Polls show the GOP bore the brunt of the blame from voters, with Gallup registering a 28 percent approval rating from Republicans, the lowest rating it had ever recorded for a political party.

“We left a lot on the table because we couldn't get our act together but this is the best Mitch could do. We need to stop the bleeding, lessen the damage to the party," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said he hopes the Republicans pushing to derail ObamaCare "learned a lesson that shutdowns and defaults shouldn't be a part of the way we do business." 

"They should be off limits," Alexander said. "We have plenty of other legislative tactics we can use."

But in a speech minutes before the Senate vote, Cruz remained defiant, calling the bill approved by the Senate a “terrible deal.”

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) tried to put a positive spin on the outcome but acknowledged that Republicans lost the battle.

“We just didn’t win,” Boehner told a Cincinnati radio host.

Later, in a private meeting of the House GOP conference, Boehner told his colleagues: “We fought the good fight.”

“We’ll live to fight another day,” he pledged, according to people in the room.

House Republicans seemed more unified after the meeting then over the last several days.

Republican lawmakers gave Boehner a standing ovation in a show of appreciation of the tough job he had uniting the disparate factions of his caucus.

Conservatives said Boehner does not have to worry about fending off a coup, as many pundits speculated he would if he passed legislation to open the government by relying on Democratic votes.

Yet the last few weeks highlighted his inability to control his members, who repeatedly rejected his strategies and legislative proposals.

The final deal was negotiated by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who began an intense round of negotiations with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) at the end of last week after House Republicans proposed legislation to raise the debt ceiling while leaving the government shuttered.

Senate Republicans failed to win a delay of the law’s medical device tax, which many wanted, but claimed a sliver of victory by keeping current spending levels locked in place for three more months.

The bill will grant back pay to an estimated 800,000 federal workers who were furloughed by the shutdown. The leaders also agreed to set up a Senate-House budget conference to negotiate broader fiscal reforms and report its work to Congress by Dec. 13.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has asked Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), her House counterpart, to join her for breakfast Thursday “to begin some conversations about how move forward from here”.

Some Senate Republicans, worried about the plunge of their party’s approval rating in recent polls, argued Wednesday the standoff over government funding was not worth the battle.

“I never supported this strategy because I didn’t think it was smart for the country of achievable,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).

She called the result “absurd” and noted ObamaCare’s healthcare exchanges opened despite the shutdown.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who with Cruz, spearheaded the aggressive tactic, disagreed.


“The media keeps asking was it worth it? My answer is that it’s always worth it to do the right thing,” he said. “Fighting against an abusive government in defense of protecting the individual rights of the American people is always the right thing.

The legislation could be one of the last appropriations bill to pass before year’s end and senators grabbed the opportunity to attach funding for projects and natural disasters in their home states.

It includes a $1.2 billion funding authorization increase for the Army Corps of Engineers to improve of locks and dams on the lower Ohio River on the Illinois-Kentucky border.

The Senate Conservatives Fund described that as a kickback secured by McConnell for his home state.

“In exchange for funding ObamaCare and raising the debt limit, Mitch McConnell has secured a $2 billion earmark,” the group wrote in a statement. “This is an insult to all the Kentucky families who don’t want to pay for ObamaCare and don’t want to shoulder any more debt.”

Reid, however, defended the project as necessary to save federal money.

“Had we not done this … the Corps of Engineers would have had to spend before the last day of December $80 million to stop this project,” he said at a press conference after the vote. “This project has been ongoing since 1988. The purpose if it is the construction of some locks and a damn that was initiated in the 1930s. It’s a replacement.”

The bill also allocates $450 million to rebuild flood damage in Colorado.

It allocates $36 million to the Department of the Interior and $600 million to the Forest Service for fighting wildfires and refurbishing the damage they caused.

Mike Lillis contributed to this story.

This story was updated at 8:43 p.m.