By Kent Klein
U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican lawmakers reached a last-minute budget agreement late Friday, averting a potential government shutdown.
Less than two hours before the deadline, Democrats and Republicans agreed, in principle, on a federal budget for the remaining six months of this fiscal year. They also reached a deal on a short-term spending plan to fund the government until the full budget gets final approval, probably next week.
The Senate and House of Representatives approved the plan a short time later.
The agreement prevents a partial government shutdown, in which hundreds of thousands of federal workers would have been furloughed, and government services curtailed.
Shortly after the deal was announced, President Obama said it includes $39 billion in cuts from his original budget plan.
“This agreement between Democrats and Republicans, on behalf of all Americans, is on a budget that invests in our future while making the largest annual spending cut in our history,” the president said.
Leaders of both parties on Capitol Hill congratulated each other on the deal, which followed days of tough and sometimes bitter debate.
The top Republican in the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner, said the budget cuts will help speed the nation’s economic recovery.
“As you all know, this has been a lot of discussion and a long fight. But we fought to keep government spending down, because it really will, in fact, help create a better environment for job creators in our country,” said the House leader.
Boehner had been under pressure from some lawmakers in the Republican Party’s “Tea Party” faction to reject a compromise and insist on greater spending cuts. However, public opinion polls indicated that almost 60% of Americans wanted a deal.
The top Senate Democrat, Majority Leader Harry Reid, said reaching the agreement was difficult but important for the country. He said lawmakers have a responsibility to lead through the even more difficult debates to come.
“But if the American people have to make tough choices and they are doing it every day, so should their leaders,” said Reid.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers have blamed each other for bringing the government to the brink of partial closure.
Two of the most contentious issues involved funding for Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest reproductive health care provider, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which, among other things, regulates the amount of pollutants that can be emitted into the environment.
Planned Parenthood gives abortion counseling, among other services. Many Republicans believe abortions should not be legal. Federal law prohibits government money from paying for abortions.
Republicans also say Environmental Protection Agency regulations inhibit business activity and curtail the ability to create jobs.
Democrats contended that Republicans’ insistence on cutting funding for Planned Parenthood and the Environmental Protection Agency was holding up an agreement. Republicans said the disagreement was over the size of the budget cuts, not social programs.
Friday’s deal did not include controversial cuts proposed for those two programs. But it did call for Senate votes on rescinding funding for Planned Parenthood and for the health care reform legislation President Obama signed in 2010.
The president said the agreement rightly focuses on budget issues.
Mr. Obama said, “We also made sure that, at the end of the day, this was a debate about spending cuts, not social issues like women’s health and the protection of our air and water. These are important issues that deserve discussion, just not during a debate about our budget.”
Mr. Obama was accused of allowing the budget debate to drag on too long by not involving himself in the negotiations early enough.
However, he held several meetings with congressional leaders this week, and made numerous phone calls to the lawmakers as the deadline approached.
The president postponed a trip to the central state of Indiana, which had been planned for Friday. And he and his family delayed a weekend visit to the historic town of Williamsburg, Virginia.
Shortly after the 2011 budget is settled, Congress will start haggling over the spending plan for fiscal 2012, which begins this October.