Since the government’s partial shutdown more than two weeks ago, it has been a roller coaster in Washington. There was impasse after impasse, heated rhetoric on both sides and talk of an economic catastrophe. On Wednesday, things finally settled down with a bipartisan deal. Here are some basic questions and answers about what’s going on:
Q: What’s happened?
On Wednesday, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate reached a deal to open the government and to raise the debt ceiling through early next year. The House and Senate approved the bill Wednesday night, followed by a signature from President Barack Obama — ending a two-part crisis.
The first part started Oct. 1, when the government partially shut down, closing federal agencies and furloughing hundreds of thousands of workers.
The second part was the fight over raising the debt ceiling, a legal limit on how much the government can borrow. If the limit is not raised in a timely fashion, the government can default on its obligations, which include Social Security payments and payments to investors in government debt.
Q: What will the deal do?
The deal has five main parts:
* Immediately reopens the government and funds it through Jan. 15.
* Raises the debt ceiling through Feb. 7 but allows federal borrowing to continue for a few weeks longer, using special accounting measures.
* Requires additional measures, favored by Republicans, to ensure that people who receive financial help to buy medical insurance under the new health-care law are being honest about their income.
* Sets up a negotiating committee to try to come up with a longer-term budget plan so we don’t go through this again early next year. The committee is expected to issue budget recommendations by Dec. 13.
* Provides back pay to furloughed federal workers.
Q: When will federal agencies reopen?
As early as Thursday in most cases.
Q: When will federal workers get back pay?
Uncertain, but as soon as possible.
Q: So with Obama’s signature, is this truly over?
Q: Why has this taken so long?
There are two reasons.
2. A group of conservative tea-party Republicans in the House wanted to halt or delay the Affordable Care Act in exchange for keeping the government functioning.
Q: But there won’t actually be major changes to the health-care law in the deal?
Q: Who won, and who lost?
It seems pretty clear in this round of the budget wars, Obama and the Democrats outmaneuvered their Republican opponents.
House Republicans decided to shut down the government in hopes of major changes to the health-care law, but none were in the offing. Senate Republicans reluctantly went along with that strategy — at least for a while. In the meantime, the GOP brand was badly beaten up in the polls.
Prognosticators now say that Republicans could have a hard time winning the Senate in 2014, even though the electoral map is stacked against the Democrats. But the House still looks safe for the GOP.
Meanwhile, Obama and fellow Democrats stuck to their view that they would not pay a “ransom” to accomplish the basic tasks of keeping the government open and raising the debt limit.
Q: Hold up — wasn’t Obama forced to compromise to raise the debt ceiling and open the government?
Not really. Obama gave the flimsiest of fig leaves to the Republicans: a promise to do a better job ensuring that people who report their income to get help buying health insurance are reporting their income properly. There were already some assurances in the health-care law, so all the president promised was an additional layer of scrutiny.
Q: So is it all wonderful for Obama and Democrats?
Again, not really. For all the drama, they got little out of this deal. They won’t be rolling back the deep spending cuts known as the sequester that took effect earlier this year and are eating away at domestic priorities, including education and research and development. They won’t be getting new money to spend on jobs or an immigration bill.
They just got a political win. And they avoided an economic disaster.
Q: What happens next?
Per the outlines of the agreement, Republicans and Democrats will assign lawmakers to a committee to hash out a broader budget plan for the coming year. These joint efforts have not had success in the recent past.
But hope dies hard. For Democrats and Republicans alike, the basic question in the committee will be whether they can find a way to roll back the sequester, which is due to launch a new round of budget cuts in January.
Democrats hate the sequester because it’s basically the opposite of their vision of domestic investment. Republicans are more ambivalent, but there are many in the GOP who don’t like how deeply it cuts Pentagon spending.
The most likely path to replacing part of the sequester is to instead make cuts to mandatory spending, such as health-care programs or farm subsidies. On a practical level, Republicans and Democrats agree that mandatory spending is better to cut, because it’s the long-term driver of debt. But it also has entrenched constituencies, such as the elderly or farmers, which makes such cuts difficult to achieve.
A bigger budget deal — the elusive “grand bargain” — could also be considered as part of the committee’s talks. But any discussion of significant changes to mandatory spending usually leads Democrats to insist on new taxes, which has been a deal-breaker for the GOP.
Q: What happens if the committee fails to come to an agreement and we’re back in January with new deadlines?
There could be a big, new fight — like we’ve just experienced — or neither side will want another fight with the midterm elections fast approaching. So they’ll just extend everything once again, leaving sequester cuts in place, and the voters will decide what they want come November.