WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats abruptly abandoned a fight over spending on Thursday and said they would instead extend government funding on a temporary basis, a move that gives Republicans a greater chance to enact the deep cuts they have promised.
The surprise agreement looked likely to end a high-stakes game of chicken that could have led to a shutdown of wide swaths of the government if Congress had not agreed on a spending bill by Saturday night.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said nine Republicans had agreed to back the bill but their support evaporated in recent days.
Lacking the votes to advance the measure, Reid said he would agree to a Republican proposal to temporarily extend government funding beyond the Saturday deadline.
Aides said they expected the measure to pass easily when it comes up for a vote on Friday or Saturday.
Like President Barack Obama’s $858 billion tax deal that is poised to clear Congress, the tentative spending deal reflects the new clout Republicans enjoy in Washington after a sweeping victory in November’s congressional elections.
Democrats had hoped to pass the $1.1 trillion spending bill before January, when Republicans take control of the House of Representatives and hold more seats in the Senate.
Republicans in the Senate had blasted the 1,924-page bill, which would fund everything from national defense to preschool programs, as a wasteful boondoggle that ignores voters’ concerns over government spending.
The bill would have given Obama the resources he requested to implement his sweeping reforms of healthcare and Wall Street regulations, but at a level $29 billion below what he requested -- a dollar amount that Republicans who helped craft the bill had insisted on.
The bill also would have funded many programs that Obama has opposed, such as an extra engine for the F-35 fighter and some 6,600 pet spending projects, known as earmarks, that were requested by lawmakers.
Lawmakers have long used earmarks to curry favor with voters by steering federal dollars to their home districts. But in recent years, earmarks have figured in a number of scandals and voters increasingly view them as prime examples of wasteful spending.
Republicans adopted a voluntary ban on earmarks after the November election, which made it difficult for them to support a bill that included billions of dollars worth of earmark projects they had requested.
“If you went to ‘H’ in the dictionary and found ‘hypocrite,’ under that would be people who ask for earmarks but vote against them,” Reid said earlier in the day.
Reid and many other Democrats have fiercely defended earmarks as a way to ensure that Congress retains its control over federal spending.
The two leaders have not worked out how long to extend current funding. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has introduced a measure that would last until February 18.
Until then, the government would continue to operate on the framework of an outdated budget that likely would make it difficult for federal agencies to cancel outdated programs and move ahead with new ones.
That could complicate efforts to implement Obama’s signature Wall Street and healthcare reforms, but also place on hold thousands of more routine items like research grants.
The fiscal year began on October 1, but the government has been operating on an extension of last year’s budget because Congress has been unable to pass any of the 12 bills that fund everything from prisons to scientific research -- or even pass a budget agreement that would set funding levels.
“As a result of not doing the basic work of government, here we are at the end struggling with this issue,” McConnell said.
McConnell and other Republicans have criticized Democrats for focusing on other matters, such as an effort to allow gays to serve openly in the military. Democrats have blamed Republican obstructing tactics that prevent the chamber from operating efficiently.
Any measure passed by the Senate would have to be reconciled with a substantially different spending bill passed by the House.