Senate Democrats Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, left, and Barbara Boxer… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)
WASHINGTON — Sending President Obama a bill Thursday that averts a government shutdown, Congress proved that it can, in fact, function. Not long ago, this was considered an unlikely outcome.
Republicans in the House, trying to force Obama to accept deep cuts, had come close to shutting down the government before and appeared primed to do so again.
But House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has united his rambunctious majority ever so tenuously around a strategy that, for now, sets aside the cycle of crisis politics to aim for long-range objectives.
Not only did lawmakers hold their fire to approve the legislation, they did so ahead of schedule — without the midnight-hour brinkmanship that has come to characterize Congress and its dealings with the White House.
That let politicians slip past a crucial fiscal deadline without damaging their reputations or the economy. The bill, which needs to become law by Wednesday, keeps the government open through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The parties agreed to continue the deep "sequester" cuts, but lawmakers found common cause and created bipartisan coalitions to lessen the effects on their favored programs.
When Republicans in the House shifted money to ensure embassies are secured and the Border Patrol stays at full force, the Democrats who control the Senate obliged.
Senators, meanwhile, reached across the aisle to craft amendments to keep meat inspectors on the job, fund a tuition assistance program for service members and spare a few thousand children from child-care cuts. The Republican-led House did not flinch, though Boehner did need Democratic votes to get it over the finish line.
This display of pragmatic governing, however, may be fleeting. The deal Boehner made with his party's conservative majority also sets up the next clash.
Even as the House voted Thursday to fund the government for the next six months, Republicans also pushed through an austere budget plan that would balance revenue and spending in 10 years. Drafted by Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), the former vice presidential nominee, the proposal would overhaul Medicare and the social safety net, while dropping taxes for the wealthy and corporations.
In the Senate, Democrats are expected to approve their own 10-year budget plan Friday that goes in the opposite direction. Democrats want wealthier Americans and corporations to pay more to lower the deficit while investing some new revenue in transportation, education and public employees to create jobs.
"Even though we got two political parties with competing ideologies, the American people expect us to find common ground," Boehner said Thursday.
In the Senate, Democrats have shown little interest in negotiating as Republicans have used almost every procedural weapon to push an agenda in stark contrast to one advocated by Obama.
Hostage-taking, as the White House has called the GOP approach, has its limits, and polls show voters agree.
Earlier this year, at a tony retreat in Williamsburg, Va., Boehner tapped Ryan, along with the House's top conservatives, to engineer a strategy that could provide a more measured approach to the Republican goals.
The outcome has become known as the Williamsburg accord. The House GOP would fast-forward past day-to-day battles — such as keeping the government running — to a more lofty one: approval of a balanced budget.
"It is the primary reason that I ran for Congress, and I think it is the defining issue and the most critical argument of our day," said freshman Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican from Utah, as he urged his colleagues this week to vote for the GOP budget.
Boehner's accord with his restive troops is fragile and could come undone, particularly as patience among the most conservative Republicans wears thin.
In a matter of months, Washington will face its next deadline, when Congress will be asked to raise the federal debt limit, an essential step to avoid a default that could have serious economic ramifications.
Tea-party-aligned deficit hawks want to use the limit, which will be reached May 18, as leverage to pressure the White House to negotiate on an overhaul of Medicare, Medicaid and other safety net programs.
"Some people in this conference believe that the plan is just to pass the Paul Ryan budget," said Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), a conservative. "My goal is not to pass a meaningless document by itself, unless we actually implement the policies that will get us to a 10-year balance."
But conversations on making that happen, Boehner acknowledged, have just begun.
"At this point in time," he said, "I don't know how we go forward."