Congress approves deal on shutdown, debt

A bipartisan deal to reopen the government and extend the nation's $16.7 trillion debt ceiling into early next year won overwhelming support in Congress late Wednesday, allowing tens of thousands of federal employees in Maryland to return to work starting Thursday.

The legislation reopens federal agencies for three months, until Jan. 15, and raises the debt ceiling until Feb. 7, ending an impasse that badly bruised Republicans but left President Barack Obama's controversial health care law intact. The agreement was struck hours before the U.S. Treasury Department would have lost its power to borrow money.

"We can begin to lift this cloud of uncertainty and unease from our businesses and from the American people," Obama said. "There is a lot of work ahead of us, including our need to earn back the trust of the American people that has been lost over the last few weeks."

The Senate approved the agreement, 81-18, sending it to the House of Representatives, which passed it on a 285-144 vote. Obama signed the measure early Thursday morning and his administration told federal employees to expect to return to work on Thursday.

Despite the significance of ending the shutdown that began on Oct. 1 and avoiding a default on U.S. financial obligations, the proposal set up yet another budget battle next year that could have even more important consequences for Maryland and other states with close economic ties to the federal government.

Lawmakers are already preparing for that fight.

"The lesson from this is that the public is furious with us," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who voted for the agreement. "The only silver lining from this experience is that those who felt that no compromise would be acceptable now know that's not true."

The legislation would reopen federal parks, put scientists back on the job at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and reopen the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration.

But economists said the short-term nature of the measure will do little to ease the uncertainty that many industries have complained about for years.

"The further into the future that people can peer, the bolder their economic actions are in the near term," said Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive of the Sage Policy Group.

Maryland has been particularly vulnerable to the shutdown, with 314,000 residents — a tenth of the state's workforce — employed by the federal government and another 250,000 working for federal contractors. State officials say Maryland lost $5 million a day in revenue since agencies closed.

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said in a statement that federal employees should expect to return to work Thursday.

In the end, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky closed a deal to end the stalemate after an effort by House Republicans to craft their own proposal collapsed late Tuesday. Many Republicans acknowledged their party extracted little, if anything, of significance for their effort.

"The House has fought with everything it has to convince the president of the United States to engage in bipartisan negotiations aimed at addressing our country's debt and providing fairness for the American people under Obamacare," House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said in a statement.

"That fight will continue," he said.

Polls indicate Republicans were damaged far more by the budget debacle, which began with demands from conservatives to delay or strip funding for key provisions of Obamacare. Thousands of people began enrolling for health insurance under the law Oct. 1, despite technical problems that were largely overshadowed by the funding fight.

None of those demands made it into the final agreement.

The only change to the health care law is a provision requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that it is checking the income of Americans who receive subsidies to buy insurance through the law. Democrats said they had no objections to that measure because it largely repeated language already in the law.

Negotiations on the proposal got underway in earnest after an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found the public blamed the GOP for the shutdown more than Democrats by a 22-point margin.

Maryland's only Republican in Congress, Rep. Andy Harris, said Wednesday he would not support the proposal because it did nothing to reduce the federal budget deficit. His early announcement was an indication GOP leaders were not pressuring rank-and-file Republicans to support the agreement.