In Congress, Short-Term Compromise At 11th Hour

Friday night, the House of Representatives prevented a shutdown with a stopgap bill, just hours before the last stopgap funding bill would have expired. There's also been a deal to keep a payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance from expiring two weeks from now. NPR's David Welna joins host Scott Simon to explain the congressional landscape in the final weeks of the year.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. And last night, the House of Representatives prevented a government shutdown with a stop-gap just hours before the last stop-gap funding bill would have expired. The House passed a trillion dollar spending package along with a short-term measure to keep government agencies open and allow a the Senate vote today on the overall spending bill. And there's also been a deal to keep a payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance from expiring a couple of weeks from now. NPR congressional correspondent David Welna at the Capitol. Thanks for being with us.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Sure, Scott. Good morning.

SIMON: So, are we past the threat of the government shutting down?

WELNA: We are indeed, Scott. The Senate this morning voted to pass the trillion dollar omnibus spending bill that the House passed yesterday. And that should keep the federal government in business through September. This huge spending bill was quite unusual, in that it's a product of bipartisan collaboration, wrapping up what's been a pretty tumultuous year of divided government and brinksmanship. Democrats managed to strip out of the bill a lot of GOP policy riders from the bill, among them restrictions on travel to Cuba and indirect funding for NPR. And Republicans got a budget that's slightly smaller than last year's. Only the Department of Defense gets more money, though about twenty-one billion dollars less than what President Obama had originally asked for.

SIMON: Why do these things seemed to be always resolved at the very last minute?

WELNA: Well, you know, as a rule, Congress usually doesn't get big things done until it absolutely has to them. And that's been especially true this year. But there is another reason this went right up to the brink, and that is that the White House had urged Democrats to hold up the omnibus spending bill to add pressure to first reach a deal to extend expiring payroll tax cuts and unemployment insurance. The last thing President Obama wanted was for House Republican leaders to approve of the big spending bill and then simply leave town for the holidays.

SIMON: And there appears there has been a Senate deal struck to keep people's payroll taxes from going up on January 1st.

WELNA: There has indeed, and it was approved by the Senate this morning. But it's only for the next two months, rather than the full year that President Obama wanted. It also extends unemployment benefits another two months and prevents a big cut in the fees that doctors get paid for Medicare patients. And it's all paid for but not with the surtax on millionaires that Democrats had insisted on. They dropped that demand after Republicans refused to go along with it. But Republicans would not give up their main condition for extending these provisions, namely an acceleration of the permitting process for the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

SIMON: But didn't President Obama once say that he'd reject any measure to extend the tax cut by including the Keystone pipeline?

WELNA: He did. The president had earlier declared a decision on this controversial pipeline would not be made until after next year's election. And when Republicans started talking about attaching the Keystone pipeline issue to the payroll tax cut extension, he warned he'd reject such deal. But this Senate deal does include such a requirement, and that the decision be made within 60 days. And White House officials are now saying they won't make good on their veto threat because the president can still say no to the pipeline. That might help placate environmentalists who oppose this massive project. But if the president does stop it from moving forward, he would likely anger another important constituency for Democrats, the labor unions, that want to see this project move forward because they and Republicans say it creates jobs. Now, there's a wild card here, Scott, and it's the GOP-led House. We don't know how much support there will be among Republicans for this deal there.

SIMON: NPR's David Welna. Thanks so much.

WELNA: You're welcome.

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