Shutdown Deal: a Handshake at 10:30 p.m.

Posted April 9, 2011 at 1:49am

The deal to avoid a government shutdown came down to a handshake at 10:30 p.m. Friday night between three top staffers who had been negotiating around the clock.

David Krone, chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’ (D-Nev.), White House liaison Rob Nabors and Barry Jackson, chief of staff for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), came to agreement in an office in the fourth floor of the Capitol just as President Barack Obama was calling for an update, according to a senior Democratic leadership aide.

They were racing against the clock. They had been told the federal government would actually start shutting down at 11 p.m. if at least one chamber hadn’t passed a bill.

By 10:30, the framework for the deal had already been reached — Boehner had given in on his demand for a rider prohibiting funding for Planned Parenthood, and Democrats had agreed to an extra $500 million in spending cuts over the course of the day, from an unspent transportation account as well as several other spending changes.

Hours later, the two sides differed slightly on the size of the cuts. While both agreed the spending level was $78.5 billion below Obama’s budget request, Republicans said it amounted to about a $39 billion cut from current spending levels while Democrats said it actually cut a little under $38 billion.

Democrats also succeeded in preserving a significant chunk of domestic discretionary spending by cutting mandatory accounts instead. Democrats said the final deal cut $17.8 billion from mandatory accounts. Final details have not been released, and the bill still has to be drafted.

The senior Democratic aide said he had been pessimistic a deal could be reached after a Wednesday meeting at the White House, but prospects improved significantly Thursday when the two sides came close to agreeing to a topline number and worked through almost all of the House riders. Boehner kept pushing to cut $80 billion from Obama’s budget, according to the Democratic aide; Democrats and the president said they were willing to cut $78 billion — significantly more than they had proposed a week earlier and far from their original proposals for level funding.

Most of the policy riders were worked out one by one Thursday night. Environmental Protection Agency riders on regulating greenhouse gases were dropped, as were riders defunding health care. On some of the policy provisions, including health care defunding, Democrats agreed to offer what are expected to be largely symbolic — though perhaps politically difficult — votes on the Senate floor on separate bills that would accomplish the same thing. The floor vote idea came at the suggestion of Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). In other cases, they agreed to requirements for studies in the bill.

But Boehner also won several significant concessions from Democrats — including the District of Columbia abortion rider, the school voucher program for the district that Ohio Republican has long championed, and the House’s language on the Guantánamo Bay prison.

The most difficult provision was a proposal to end federal funding of Planned Parenthood. Jackson, Boehner’s chief of staff, told Democrats the Planned Parenthood provision was non-negotiable. The president and Reid, during negotiations in the Oval Office, were equally inflexible.

Staff then met back at the Capitol until sometime between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. Friday to try hashing out a compromise but were unable to resolve the issues. Republicans at one point proposed requiring Democrats to strip the Planned Parenthood rider from the bill on the Senate floor and sending it back to the House. Under the GOP proposal, if the Senate was unable to strip the provision, Republicans wanted a guarantee that the president would sign the bill. Democrats refused.

Later Friday morning, the president sent an offer to the House, and at 11:30 a.m. the House sent back a counter-offer. The numbers were close, but the Planned Parenthood issue was not yet resolved. Offers and counter-offers continued through the day with the clock ticking. Boehner ultimately relented on the Planned Parenthood rider in return for a Senate vote on the issue.

And Republicans kept pushing for more cuts up to the end.

At one point, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called Reid to ask him to agree to more spending cuts, given that the major riders were coming out of the bill.

The two sides finally reached a deal on a topline spending number at 8 p.m. and on the rest of the package at 10:30 p.m. after tables were prepared showing exactly where the cuts would go.