WASHINGTON — Perilously close to a government shutdown, President Barack Obama and congressional leaders reached a historic agreement late Friday night to cut about $38 billion in federal spending and avert the first federal closure in 15 years.

Obama hailed the deal as “the biggest annual spending cut in history.” House Speaker John Boehner said that over the next decade it would cut government spending by $500 billion, and won an ovation from his rank and file – tea party adherents among them.

“This is historic, what we’ve done,” agreed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the third man involved in negotiations that ratified a new era of divided government.

They announced the agreement less than an hour before government funding was due to run out. The shutdown would have closed national parks, tax-season help lines and other popular services, though the military would have stayed on duty and other essential efforts such as air traffic control would have continued in effect.

On side issues – “riders,” the negotiators called them – the Democrats and the White House rebuffed numerous Republican attempts to curtail the reach of the Environmental Protection Agency and sidetracked their demand to deny federal funds to Planned Parenthood.

Anti-abortion lawmakers succeeded in winning a provision to ban the use of federal or local government funds to pay for abortions in the District of Columbia.

Lawmakers raced to pass an interim measure to prevent a shutdown, however brief, and keep the federal machinery running for the next several days. The Senate acted within minutes. The House worked past midnight, so the federal government was to be technically unfunded for a short period of time, but there would be little – if any – practical impact.

The deal came together after six grueling weeks and an outbreak of budget brinksmanship over the past few days as the two sides sought to squeeze every drop of advantage in private talks.

“We know the whole world is watching us today,” Reid said earlier in a day that produced incendiary, campaign style rhetoric as well as intense negotiation.

Maine’s delegation late Friday expressed relief that a shutdown had been averted, but also had some criticism for a process that made a government shutdown possible.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said she was “pleased congressional leaders found a bridge that enables us to avert a shutdown.”

Still, “That we are even in this situation is beyond unfortunate – it indicates the dysfunctional nature of our budget process,” Snowe said in a statement after the agreement was reached. “While it is important to achieve overall reductions in federal spending, there is no reason that we could not have achieved this within our own deadlines. I hope we are nearing conclusion on this process that should have been done last October. Running up to the brink of a shutdown is as inexcusable as it is dysfunctional.”

Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud of the 2nd Congressional District said that, “It shouldn’t have come to such a late hour, but I’m glad that actions were taken to avoid a costly shutdown. I look forward to reviewing the details of the longer term budget agreement as we move forward.”

Sen. Susan Collins criticized the “brinksmanship” that brought the government so close to a shutdown, and said Congress should have passed the 2011 spending measures on time last year.

But, “It is encouraging that House and Senate leaders, and the president, have finally agreed to a short-term bill that both reduces federal spending and averts a government shutdown,” said Collins, R-Maine. “This will allow enough time for Congress to pass a fiscally responsible budget to take us through the remainder of the current fiscal year. This bill makes tough decisions and includes the biggest annual spending cut in history, but it also takes into account our nation’s priorities and helps protect jobs.”

Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st Congressional District said she is “glad that Republicans have backed off their efforts to end funding for women’s health care and roll back environmental protections and we can avoid a government shutdown. I haven’t seen the proposed budget agreement yet but I’m going to look at it carefully to make sure it protects essential services and represents the values of Maine people.”|

Reid, Obama and Boehner all agreed a shutdown posed risks to an economy still recovering from the worst recession in decades.
But there were disagreements aplenty among the principal players in an early test of divided government – Obama in the White House, fellow Democrats in control in the Senate and a new, tea party-flavored Republican majority in the House.

“Republican leaders in the House have only a few hours left to look in the mirror, snap out of it and realize how positively shameful that would be,” Reid said at one point, accusing Republicans of risking a shutdown to pursue a radical social agenda.

For much of the day, Reid and Boehner disagreed about what the disagreement was about.

Reid said there had been an agreement at a White House meeting Thursday night to cut spending by about $38 billion. He said Republicans also were demanding unspecified cuts in health services for lower income women that were unacceptable to Democrats. “Republicans want to shut down our nation’s government because they want to make it harder to get cancer screenings,” he said. “They want to throw women under the bus.”

Boehner said repeatedly that wasn’t the case – it was spending cuts that divided two sides.

“Most of the policy issues have been dealt with, and the big fight is about spending,” he said. “When will the White House and when will Senate Democrats get serious about cutting federal spending.”

By midday Friday, 12 hours before the funding would run out, most federal employees had been told whether they had been deemed essential or would be temporarily laid off in the event of a shutdown.
Obama canceled a scheduled Friday trip to Indianapolis – and a weekend family visit to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia – and kept in touch with both Boehner and Reid.

The standoff began several weeks ago, when the new Republican majority in the House passed legislation to cut $61 billion from federal spending and place numerous curbs on the government.
In the weeks since, the two sides have alternately negotiated and taken time out to pass interim measures.

Originally, Republicans wanted to ban federal funds for Planned Parenthood, a health care services provider that is also the nation’s largest provider of abortions.

Federal funds may not be used to pay for abortions except in strictly regulated cases, but supporters of the ban said cutting off government funds for the organization – currently about $330 million a year – would make it harder for it to use its own money for the same purpose.

For Congress and Obama there are even tougher struggles still ahead – over a Republican budget that would remake entire federal programs, and a vote to raise the nation’s debt limit.

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind contributed to this story.

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