WASHINGTON-With less than an hour to go before the midnight deadline Friday night, Washington's top political leaders announced a budget deal, averting the federal government's first shutdown in 15 years.
"We had an opportunity tonight to decide whether we wanted to repeat history, or make history," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "Had we chosen to repeat history, we would have allowed a government shutdown. Instead we decided to make history by implementing . . . substantial reductions in spending."
Senate Democrats and House Republicans finally agreed to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year while making about $39 billion in additional spending cuts.
House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the cuts "historic." President Barack Obama, in a brief statement made at the White House Friday night, said the agreement would be the "largest annual spending cut in our history."
Overall, Congress has agreed to a budget that is $78.5 billion lower than Obama's 2011 budget proposal. That figure falls short of the Republicans goal, touted last year in the lead up to the mid-term election, of approving a budget that was $100 billion below what Obama was asking.
But the new Republican majority in the House, many of whom were ushered into Congress on the promise to reduce spending, seem to have made a last-minute calculation that $78 billion below the president's budget request is better than a federal government shutdown. The days ahead will determine if the nation's voters approve of the compromise.
Boehner hopes his crop of freshman GOP lawmakers and the Tea Party crowd will applaud a deal that would cut government spending by $500 billion over the next decade.
Because it will take several days for legislative staffs to write the new budget, Congress on Friday night also agreed to a short-term funding resolution that would keep the government running through next week. Funding for the federal government was slated to run out on Friday at midnight.
The agreement capped a marathon day of negotiations where it seemed lawmakers remained far apart. Each party held numerous press conferences where rank-and-file lawmakers took turns blaming the other party and warning about the dire consequences that would follow a government shutdown. With sharp rhetoric that rivaled the intensity of last year's campaigns, lawmakers centered their disagreements on both the issues of life and money.
Reid, D-Nev., began Friday morning telling reporters that leaders of the two parties had agreed on spending cuts for the ongoing fiscal year. But he added that Democrats were balking at a Republican demand to defund abortion provider Planned Parenthood, which receives about $330 million annually from the government.
"The Tea Party is trying to sneak through its extreme social agenda-issues that have nothing to do with funding the government," said Reid. "They are willing to throw women under the bus, even if it means they'll shut down the government."
While the Democrats blamed social issues for the impasse, Republicans insisted that the two sides differed on how much to cut from the federal government.
"There's only one reason that we do not have an agreement as yet, and that issue is spending," said Boehner, R-Ohio. "I think the American people deserve to know when will the White House and when will Senate Democrats get serious about cutting spending,"
Democrats, Republicans warned, used the abortion issue as a scapegoat for a possible shutdown.
"Democrats are saying the holdup is over social issues," said McConnell, R-Ky. "This plays nicely into the political strategy they've decided on to distract people from their own fiscal recklessness."
Pro-life lawmakers did secure a provision in the final agreement that bans the use of government funds to pay for abortions in the District of Columbia. But efforts to deny federal funds to Planned Parenthood were not a part of the final budget compromise.
As the debate continued, both sides played the blame game. Both Democrats and Republicans seemed fearful of who would take the brunt of the political fallout over a government shutdown.
After the White House warned earlier in the week that a closure would deny pay to military troops, the Republican-led House responded by passing legislation to fund the military for six months. That bill, which garnered some Democratic support in the House, also would have kept the government running for one additional week while cutting $12 million in spending. But it went nowhere in the Democrat-led Senate. Obama called the bill a "distraction" and threatened to veto it.
Obama, who has been criticized by members of both parties for being a latecomer to the budget debates, hosted four White House meetings this week with Reid and Boehner.
"For us to go backwards because Washington couldn't get its act together is just unacceptable," Obama said.
But as the talks continued, government officials spent most of Friday cranking up shutdown procedures: Nonessential federal workers, about 800,000 employees, would have been furloughed.
Small business loans, tax refund processing, federal housing mortgages, and passport processing were among the services that would have been disrupted. Federal parks and landmarks would have closed.
This week's budget debate hit its climax after dominating Congress for most of the past few months. The stage was set when last year's Democrat-controlled Congress failed to pass a budget. The current Congress has already passed two extensions to fund the six months left on the current fiscal year.
"We are here doing the work of last year's House and Senate," said freshmen Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis.
Now Congress can move to this year's budget debates: Republicans already are pushing for even deeper cuts for the fiscal 2012 budget.
"We need to move forward and get to work on the much larger debate over how to cut trillions, not billions, in government spending," said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga.