12.16.11

Congress Strikes Funding Deal and Averts Latest Potential Shutdown

House and Senate negotiators agreed to a funding deal through next October, slightly more than a day before the government would have faced a shutdown. The full Congress takes up the measure in the coming days.

With the federal government careening toward a shutdown at midnight Friday, House and Senate negotiators struck a deal late Thursday to fund more than 60 agencies of the federal government through October 2012 if the full Congress approves the measure in the coming days. Rep. Hal Rodgers, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, announced the agreement after the House and Senate had adjourned for the night, and said he expects votes beginning Friday.

In addition to resolving a dispute over funding for the Commodities Future Trading Commission, aides said, negotiators planned to drop a controversial provision that would have reinstated restrictions for Americans traveling to Cuba.

The Thursday breakthrough came after a day when leaders huddled behind closed doors in search of a deal while rank-and-file members were left to cast votes on such matters as local land deals and a bill to create a commemorative coin for the U.S. Marshals Service’s 255th birthday.

Still left on the congressional to-do list are a measure to keep the payroll tax at 4.2 percent for the next year (worth about $1,000 to the average American), language to keep unemployment benefits going for long-term unemployed past Dec. 31, and a bill to avoid a drastic pay cut for doctors who take Medicare patients.

Even with the latest spending crisis averted, it’s no surprise that the American public is fed up with what they see in Washington. A record 87 percent of respondents told Gallup recently that they disapprove of the job Congress is doing. In the halls of the Capitol on Thursday, Democrats and Republicans admitted they don’t much approve of the job they are doing either.

“Are you telling me the rest of the people do approve?” Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin  told The Daily Beast. “Count me in the [87 percent]. I think we can do much better.” Manchin blamed the breakdown in Washington on the culture of partisanship that he’s found since joining the Senate last year. “I think politics is trumping everything. You would think that we would be held to a higher standard, but we’re not.”

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, glumly shook his head at a press conference protesting efforts to undo the huge defense cuts that Congress approved just last month. “I am, as a member of this body, ashamed from time to time to go home and receive questions about what we are doing and how we are looking,” Cleaver said.

Even with the latest spending crisis averted, it’s no surprise that the American public is fed up with what they see in Washington.

After the House voted on its commemorative coin, former Army colonel Rep. Allen West said being in a group less popular than lobbyists and used-car salesmen has been an adjustment. “I have gone from being a part of an organization that had the highest approval ratings in the country to an organization that has the lowest approval ratings in the country. So my self-esteem has incredibly dropped,” West said. “But I think we need to pay heed to that.”

As frustrated as the rank and file appeared, leaders of both parties held news conferences Thursday to blame the other guys for the mess over the payroll tax cut extension.

“No more showboats,” House Speaker John Boehner said of Democrats negotiating to extend the payroll tax cut. “I think it’s just time to legislate. I think America needs to see us earning our paychecks.”

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said her members had done their part to find common ground by dropping their proposal for a surtax on millionaires, but Republicans had deliberately sabotaged the tax-cut bill with other riders and poison pills they know Democrats in the Senate won’t support.

“The best analogy I can use is, it’s like someone saying to her fiancé, ‘Yes, I’ll finally marry you, but I can only do that on February 30th.’ That day is never coming.”

On the other side of the Capitol, senators blanched at the idea of the massive spending bill headed their way.

To a person, no senator could say what exactly what is in the gargantuan package, which had already become a magnet for last-minute deals on everything from light-bulb standards to abortion restrictions to a host of special-interest provisions looking for a ride on the last legislative train out of the station this year.

“I’m not very enthusiastic about it; let’s put it that way,” Sen. Orrin Hatch said of the super-sized spending bill. “We ought to have an appropriations process that works, and we don’t.

Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois said he plans to vote against the bill because it spends too much and hides costs with what he called budget gimmicks. Plus, he said, no senator could possibly know everything that’s in the monster bill. “Oh no, no, no. It’s over 1,000 pages.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said Congress should never pass an omnibus appropriations bill like the one the House will consider Friday “unless the alternative is a continuing resolution.” Since that kind of short-term spending fix is the only alternative left, Alexander and most other senators will most likely vote for it when it comes up in the Senate, which aides predicted would be sometime this weekend.

Even if members of Congress don’t like it, they can live with it, and that has become the standard most legislation is measured against these days.

And with Christmas less than two weeks away (“Jet fumes get people to focus around here,” a senior aide explained.) and election year 2012 starting just a week after that, time seems to be of the essence in Congress, for once.