[Updated at 8 p.m. ET Thursday] Try to act like you haven’t heard this before: The U.S. government is days away from a potential partial shutdown.
For the eighth time in calendar 2011, Congress must approve at least a stop-gap spending measure because it failed to authorize spending for a full fiscal year. The current temporary measure ends Friday, and if Congress fails to act, a partial shutdown akin to that of 1995/1996 would ensue.
Leaders of both parties say they intend to keep the government funded. But as of Wednesday, a spending plan was held up as lawmakers argued over other issues, including possible extensions of a payroll tax cut and federal unemployment benefits.
Congressional negotiators came to an agreement Thursday night that they believe will prevent a shutdown, according to several Democratic sources. Negotiators were signing off on a massive spending bill that funds the government through October 1, 2012, they told CNN.
Both the House and Senate are expected to vote on the conference report Friday.
Temporary spending measures aren’t unusual. At least one was passed in 27 out of the last 30 years, so that Congress could have more time to develop a fuller spending plan. But this year the country averaged more than one every two months, with many of them featuring battles between House Republicans – believing 2010 elections gave them a mandate to bring budget deficits under control – and Senate Democrats over how to shrink deficits.
Here’s a look at the eight times the federal government technically came within days of losing its spending authorization this year, plus the summer debt-ceiling debate that also brought talk of a potential shutdown.
The Democratic-controlled House and Senate of 2010 failed to pass a budget for fiscal 2011, which would start in October 2010. Republicans won control of the House in November 2010 elections, setting the stage for this year's fierce budget battles.
With no full-year spending plan, a lame-duck Congress in December passed three short-term resolutions, with the final one keeping government operating until March 3.
Taking official control of the House in January, Republicans declined to pass any further spending extension, or "continuing resolution," without securing cuts as part of the deal. Freshmen Republicans, keen on slashing deficits, initially pressured their leadership to cut $100 billion from then-current spending levels.
By mid-February, the House GOP was pushing for $61 billion in cuts, which would have been partly reached by blocking all federal funding for Planned Parenthood and the president's health care overhaul, limiting the Environmental Protection Agency and cutting millions of dollars for the arts, heating subsidies and financial services regulations.
Democrats resisted, saying the cuts were too severe and that deficits could be alleviated if Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, which Republicans wanted to keep, were allowed to expire. If the parties couldn't come to a deal by March 4, the government would partially shut down, temporarily putting hundreds of thousands of federal employees out of work, though essential services such as air traffic control would continue.
On March 2, Congress passed a deal that would keep government operating for two more weeks, through March 18. In that deal, Republicans won $4 billion in spending cuts from 2010 levels, while holding out hope they could secure much more in coming negotiations. To get the $4 billion, eight programs were eliminated, including those involving rural broadband access, education and highway construction.
"We cannot keep doing business this way," President Barack Obama said after the deal's passage. "Living with the threat of a shutdown every few weeks is not responsible and it puts our economic progress in jeopardy."
House Republicans still were looking for $57 billion in additional cuts over the rest of the fiscal year, which was due to end in October. But Democrats again were opposed to the GOP's targeting of Planned Parenthood and the health care overhaul, among other items.
Days before the March 18 deadline, the two sides managed to agree to another continuing resolution, this time until April 8, that cut another $6 billion from 2010 levels, but didn't touch Planned Parenthood or health care reform. Obama signed the measure on the 18th, and lawmakers from both parties said it would be the last temporary measure agreeing on a longer-term bill.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who later would call for spending reductions through entitlement reform, admitted he didn't expect any bipartisan deal to change Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, saying he believed that would be fought after the 2012 elections.
This time, the federal government would come within minutes of a shutdown.
Negotiators haggled for days in closed-door meetings over the next round of cuts, with Democrats still fighting Republicans over proposed cuts they felt were too severe.
When April 8 came, negotiations had stalled and lawmakers were trading verbal punches, opening the prospect of a shutdown that would furlough 800,000 government workers. But hours from the deadline, leaders agreed in principle to a deal that would cover the rest of fiscal 2011 but lower spending by a further $38.5 billion from 2010 levels.
Still, lawmakers couldn't finish the legislation before day's end. So they agreed to do what they'd vowed they wouldn't: pass another temporary spending measure, this one lasting through April 15 and cutting $2 billion. President Obama signed the extension early on April 9, averting the shutdown.
"I just want to say real quick that because Congress was able to settle its differences – that's why this place is open today and everybody's able to enjoy their visit," Obama said April 9 during a visit to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. "That's the kind of future cooperation I hope we have going forward."
On April 15, the final day of the last stop-gap measure, Obama signed a measure funding government through the rest of fiscal 2011, which was to end September 30.
Congress passed the measure – which essentially was the deal struck a week earlier that cut $38.5 billion – on April 14. The House passed it 260-167, with 59 Republicans opposed and 81 Democrats voting for it. The Senate passed the bill with an 81-19 vote.
The deal cut funding from domestic programs and services such as high-speed rail, emergency first responders and the National Endowment for the Arts. As before, measures to de-fund Planned Parenthood and health care reform were defeated.
Summer debt-ceiling crisis
With the government funded through September 30, Congress focused on the nation's debt ceiling, which the country was set to hit on August 2. If the nation were to fail to raise its $14.3 trillion ceiling, it would not be able to borrow the money it needed to pay all its bills, and the country would risk default, according to the Treasury.
Some also said that because the federal government wouldn't be able to pay all its bills, a partial shutdown also was possible.
As they did during the budget negotiations, Republicans demanded that deficit reduction accompany any debt ceiling increase. Obama initially suggested $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years, with a mix of spending cuts and new revenue, including the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, making up the tally. But Republicans generally opposed tax increases.
By August 2, Congress passed a compromise plan to not only raise the debt ceiling, but also cut $917 billion over 10 years, including a roughly $420 billion reduction in the national security budget. The plan also called for at least $1.2 trillion in additional cuts, to be determined by a special Congressional committee (which would come to be known as the Super Committee) by November. If the committee couldn't agree, then $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts to defense and nondefense spending – designed to be unpalatable to both parties – would begin in 2013.
Despite the deal, Standard & Poor's downgraded the country's credit rating. And in November, the Super Committee couldn't agree to additional cuts, meaning that unless the deal is changed, the automatic cuts loom.
Another fiscal year, another round of temporary spending measures.
With fiscal 2011 ending on September 30, Congress needed to either pass a spending plan for fiscal 2012 or approve another continuing resolution. This time, a battle was brewing over funding for disaster aid.
Thanks to a number of expensive weather and climate disasters such as Hurricane Irene and a series of destructive tornadoes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency needed to replenish its coffers. Obama initially asked Congress for $5.1 billion in additional disaster aid. But Democrats and Republicans were at odds over a GOP demand to cut spending elsewhere to offset increased disaster relief funding.
Days before the deadline, the Senate passed two measures – one that would keep government funded until October 4 and a more comprehensive measure that would extend funding through November 18 – that would contain an additional $2.65 billion in additional money for FEMA. The House - using just three members, because most House members were away on a week's recess – passed the first measure through a procedure known as unanimous consent and left the second bill for the next week. Obama signed the first measure, funding the government through October 4.
The House, having returned from recess, passed the fiscal year's second extension, which was hammered out the previous week. This measure extended funding through November 17.
On November 16, a day before the last resolution would expire, Congress passed a bill funding some departments fully through fiscal 2012. The rest of the government got a temporary spending extension, though December 16.
The measure ensured funding for the Agriculture, Transportation, and the Housing and Urban Development departments, among other things, through the entire fiscal year.
December 16 (Friday)
That brings us to the showdown apparently resolved Thursday night. It appeared Wednesday that Senate Democrats, two days before the last extension is to expire, were holding up a funding bill until both parties negotiated a compromise on a payroll tax cut extension. Democrats fear that approving the spending deal first will allow Republicans to leave Washington for the upcoming holiday recess without compromising on the payroll tax-cut extension worth $1,000 to the average working family.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D- Nevada, called instead for Congress to pass another short-term spending extension to keep the government funded until December 21, giving legislators more time to reach a deal on the payroll tax measure and a longer-term spending proposal.
The GOP-led House has passed a bill extending the tax cut, but Senate Democrats object to a number of the bill's provisions, including those that would speed approval of an oil pipeline from Canada and weaken environmental regulations.
Reid on Thursday said negotiations were continuing on extending the payroll tax cut and other provisions that expire at the end of the year, including an extension of unemployment benefits and an increase in payments to doctors who provide Medicare services.