Negotiators Reach Deal To Keep Government Open

Congressional negotiators have reached agreement on a compromise spending bill to avert a weekend federal shutdown. They also worked toward a deal renewing the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits for another year.

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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

So, it looks like the federal government is not going to shut down at midnight tonight. That's good news. Congressional negotiators say they've reached an agreement to move forward on a trillion-dollar-plus spending plan. It would fund the government through October. There are still some end-of-year issues that haven't been resolved.

NPR congressional reporter Tamara Keith is on the line. And, Tamara, those countdown-to-shutdown clocks have been ticking for days. So what changed?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Well, clearly no one actually wanted the government to shutdown, and they've actually been extremely close to a deal on the spending package all week. All of the elements were there. There were just a few small disagreements on some policy riders. And I guess more significantly, what was going on is that Senate Democrats were essentially holding this government funding package hostage, trying to extract a deal on the payroll tax holiday and some other year-end things.

And that the tick-tick-tick of the shutdown clock got louder and louder, and the tone got more conciliatory. And you could say that yesterday or last night, the Democrats released the hostages.

MONTAGNE: OK. So having done that, what exactly did they agree to in this package?

KEITH: Well, this thing is massive. We're talking about hundreds of pages, more than a trillion dollars. This thing funds almost the entire federal government. It's called an omnibus, or some are calling it a mega-bus. You know, we've got the Defense Department, EPA, Health, Education, and we're still sorting through the bill.

But the other thing to note is that a lot of this had been predetermined by the August debt ceiling deal. All of the top-line numbers had been figured out. And what they were fighting about were some of the details below the surface.

MONTAGNE: And what about that payroll tax holiday, the unemployment benefits extension, and all the other end-of-year matters? Is there a deal, or going to be a deal on those?

KEITH: Well, there's no deal yet, though Democrats and Republicans have certainly been edging closer to a deal. For instance, Democrats dropped the millionaire's surtax, which was an idea for paying for it, which Republicans are happy that that's off the table. There's some discussion now that they may not actually be able to get a deal done before they go home for the holidays.

But, of course, no one wants to go home for the holidays leaving people with their unemployment benefits about to expire and their taxes about to go up. So they're talking about a plan B. I don't know how excited anyone is about this. But they're talking about possibly doing a two-month extension while they work out the rest of it. And then I guess we would have a countdown to something-or-other right around Valentine's Day.

MONTAGNE: Although, what exactly is the hold up?

KEITH: Well, basically, it's how to pay for this thing. All of these year-end extensions and various fixes add up to hundreds of billions of dollars, and they don't have a deal worked out yet on how to pay for it.

MONTAGNE: All right. So what happens today?

KEITH: Well, both the House and the Senate will be voting on this omnibus/mega-bus government spending package. They have to, because otherwise the government would shut down at midnight. And so these are expected to pass.

And there's definitely a lot of will to get the payroll tax and these other year-end things done. It's not clear that they're going to find a way today, but I get the sense that they're definitely going to be trying, because right when they get done with this, they're supposed to go home for the holidays. And there is nothing like the draw of jet fuel and home to get action happening here in Congress.

MONTAGNE: NPR's congressional reporter, Tamara Keith. Thanks very much.

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