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Shutdown Averted With Last-Minute Trade-Offs

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Speaker John Boehner’s chief of staff, Barry Jackson, negotiated around the clock to complete the deal.

Obama went to the cameras and hailed the deal, talking like a born-again deficit hawk and co-opting Republican talking points. On Sunday, Obama adviser David Plouffe said the president would propose a new deficit-cutting plan this week that would tackle Medicare and Medicaid costs, in what amounts to a do-over for his 2012 budget and a sign of just how much the agenda has shifted in Washington.

The final deal cut spending $78.5 billion below Obama’s original budget request for the year, about $38 billion below current spending levels.

Democrats had opened the bidding months ago with a plan to have the government operate at current levels but then began offering progressively larger cuts, first $4 billion, then $10 billion, $21 billion and finally $33 billion. While the Democrats kept trying to smoke him out, Boehner refused to commit to a number, linking any final spending deal to the numerous riders sought by the House. He figured Democrats would have to keep upping the ante, with public concern over massive deficits on the rise.

“Democrats kept moving in our direction without Boehner being forced to reveal his hand because they were negotiating out of a position of weakness,” a senior GOP aide said.

But the Speaker had troubles of his own. Fifty-four Republicans had abandoned the last short-term bill he negotiated, and more threatened to jump if he compromised too much on a final deal. Boehner needed to have something significant to bring back to his base or he would have a revolt on his hands.

Boehner’s push late last week for a one-week CR that cut $12 billion from domestic spending and included full-year funding for the Defense Department knocked Democrats off-balance, as they struggled to find a way to avoid looking like they were blocking troop paychecks.

An Obama veto threat followed, with the president making it clear that it was now or never for a full-year deal.

At the same time, Boehner was trying to prepare his Conference for a final deal, warning that a shutdown would help Democrats, and cost money to boot. While Boehner didn’t explicitly draw a connection, his allies made the case that the real battle was the upcoming debate over House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) plan for $6.2 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade.

As the final deal was unveiled, Senate Democrats and the White House touted their victories, but they were largely celebrating what they didn’t lose.

They succeeded in preserving a significant chunk of domestic discretionary spending by agreeing to cuts in mandatory spending accounts like transportation funding. Democrats said the final deal cut $17.8 billion from mandatory spending while protecting funding for Head Start, the health care reform law and energy research, although by Sunday evening the details had not been released.

A senior Democratic aide said the prospects for a deal improved significantly Thursday when Boehner gave up most of the House policy riders, from defunding parts of the health care and Wall Street reform laws to prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. Democrats agreed to a proposal by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to allow votes on the Senate floor on some riders, votes that are expected to fail but may be politically difficult for the president’s party.

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