U.S. Senate leaders announced a deal on Wednesday to end a political crisis that partially shut down the federal government and brought the world's biggest economy close to a debt default that economists said threatened financial calamity.
U.S. stocks surged, nearing an all-time high, on news of the deal, which must still be approved by vote in the Senate and the House of Representatives. But trading volumes remained low, underscoring how the political brinkmanship in Washington has unnerved Wall Street.
A stand-off between Republicans and the White House over funding the government and raising its borrowing authority forced the temporary lay-off of hundreds of thousands of government workers and created concern that crisis-driven politics was the “new normal” in Washington.
Senator John McCain, whose fellow Republicans triggered the crisis with demands that President Barack Obama’s signature “Obamacare” healthcare law be defunded, said on Wednesday the deal marked the “end of an agonizing odyssey” for Americans.
“It is one of the most shameful chapters I have seen in the years I’ve spent in the Senate,” said McCain, who had repeatedly warned Republicans not to link their demands for Obamacare changes to the debt limit or government spending bill.
But even if the Senate and House manage to overcome procedural hurdles to seal the deal before Thursday – when the Treasury says it will exhaust its borrowing authority – it will only be a temporary solution that sets up the prospect of another showdown early next year.
The deal that emerged on Wednesday would extend U.S. borrowing authority until Feb. 7, although the Treasury Department would have tools to temporarily extend its borrowing capacity beyond that date if Congress failed to act early next year. It would also fund government agencies until Jan. 15.
The deal includes some income verification procedures for those seeking subsidies under the healthcare law, but Republicans surrendered on their attempts to include other changes, including the elimination of a medical device tax used to help pay for it.
With Republicans in the House of Representatives deeply divided on the way forward, White House spokesman Jay Carney said “we are not putting odds on anything” when asked about a House vote on the Senate plan.
Congressional aides said the House and Senate were expected to approve the fiscal deal later on Wednesday, clearing the way for Obama to sign it into law before Thursday’s deadline.
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While analysts and U.S. officials say the government will still have roughly $30 billion in cash to pay many obligations for at least a few days after Oct. 17, the financial sector may begin to seize up if the deal is not finalized in both chambers.
The planned votes signal a temporary ceasefire between Republicans and the White House in their latest no-holds-barred struggle over spending and deficits that has at times paralyzed both decision-making and basic functions of government.
The political dysfunction has worried U.S. allies and creditors such as China, the biggest holder of U.S. debt, and raised questions about the impact on America’s prestige.
The U.S. Treasury has said the political impasse risks hurting the United States’ international reputation as a safe haven and stable financial center.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell announced the fiscal agreement on the Senate floor, where it was expected to win swift approval after a main Republican critic of the deal, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, said he would not use procedural moves to delay a vote.
The deal is seen as a victory for Obama, who held firm and refused to negotiate on changes to Obamacare, and a loss for House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, who again failed to marshal his unruly Republican caucus, particularly lawmakers aligned to the conservative, small government Tea Party movement.
The fight over Obamacare rapidly grew into a brawl over the debt ceiling, threatening a default that global financial organizations warned could throw the United States back into recession and cause a global economic disaster.
“Even though the market is moving up, this is a real historic event that is happening here so there is pause and concern,” said Frank Davis, director of sales and trading at LEK Securities in New York.
“You are seeing a lack of activity because it’s hard to invest in a market where you don’t know what’s around the corner.”
The Dow Jones industrial average .DJI and the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index .SPX were up more up than 1 percent. Trading volumes, however, were low, at just 2.4 billion shares.
Fitch Ratings said on Tuesday it could cut the U.S. sovereign credit rating from AAA, citing the political brinkmanship over raising the debt ceiling.
The deal announced on Wednesday would basically give Obama what he has demanded for months: A straight-forward debt limit hike and government funding bill.
A resolution to the crisis cannot come soon enough for many companies. American consumers have put away their wallets, at least temporarily, instead of spending on big-ticket items like cars and recreational vehicles.
“We’re sort of ‘crises-ed’ out,” said Tammy Darvish, vice president of DARCARS Automotive Group, a family-run company that owns 21 auto dealerships in the greater Washington area.
“Every time you turn around we’re meeting another budget cutoff, but this time it’s gone on a lot longer and people are very, very spooked.”
Vehicle sales at the company are down as much as 15 percent so far this month compared with a 12 percent increase through the first nine months, she said.
Many political pundits and Democratic Party politicians have predicted for weeks that a faction of Republicans in the House would drag out the crisis before making a last-minute deal.
Numerous polls show Republicans have taken a hit in public opinion. A Rasmussen poll on Wednesday showed that if congressional elections were held today, 78 percent of Americans would like to see the entire Congress thrown out and replaced. DM
Photo: U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) talks to reporters after a Republican Senate caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington October 16, 2013. U.S. Senate leaders struck a bipartisan 11th-hour deal to break the fiscal impasse on Wednesday, and the Republican-led House of Representatives agreed to take it up as Congress moved to avert a historic debt default. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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