Congress Reopens Government, Averts Default, Eases Doc Fears

October 17, 2013

A contentious House and Senate last night approved a bill to reopen the government and avert a debt default, but only long enough to catch their breath for another possible legislative brawl around the corner.

The legislation easily passed in the Democrat-controlled Senate in an 81-to-18 vote, and then cleared the Republican-controlled House 285 to 144, with almost 1 in 4 GOP members voting yes. President Barack Obama signed the bill soon after.

The agreement ends a partial government shutdown that began on October 1 and crippled public health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration as well as research at the National Institutes of Health. Organized medicine had warned that the inability of the CDC to monitor seasonal influenza posed an immediate peril to the nation's well-being.

The partial shutdown, which spared essential services and activities, happened because Congress failed to appropriate funds for government operations during the fiscal year starting on October 1. The Senate rejected appropriation bills from the House that contained provisions gutting the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The GOP's Tea Party caucus pushed the hardest to undo Obama's signature legislation.

The bill that passed last night funds the federal government through January 15, 2014. It imposes procedures to verify the income of Americans applying for subsidized health insurance under the ACA, but otherwise leaves the law untouched.

The legislation also raises the debt-ceiling limit through February 7, 2014, allowing the government to borrow money to meet obligations ranging from interest payments on US bonds to Social Security benefits. If Congress had not raised the debt ceiling before October 17, the government would have defaulted on its bills, possibly knocking the economy to the ground just as it was getting back on its feet after the Great Recession.

For their part, physicians might have seen their Medicare and Medicaid payments delayed as the government cut checks with less cash on hand (such payments kept flowing to providers throughout the shutdown).

To prevent a replay of the current fiscal crisis early next year, lawmakers agreed last night to convene a bipartisan budget committee composed of House and Senate members to find common ground on federal spending and deficit reduction. Congress has tried to walk down this road before. In the summer of 2011, lawmakers created a deficit-chopping "super committee" as a condition of lifting the debt ceiling that year. However, the super committee failed to deliver a plan, as required, to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion, triggering automatic, across-the-board budget cuts called sequestration.


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