WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama said Thursday that now that the shutdown is over, leaders in Washington should focus on a budget, immigration reform and a farm bill.
Obama laid out his agenda the morning after signing a bill reopening the government and averting a default.
He said the first focus should be on reaching a budget agreement. Congressional negotiators starting discussing that issue Thursday.
Obama said both parties should pursue a budget that lowers deficits, invests in education and infrastructure, cuts unnecessary spending and closes corporate loopholes.
The president also said Congress should finish an immigration bill by the end of the year. An overhaul passed the Senate but stalled in the House.
Obama's third priority is to pass an overdue farm bill. The House and Senate are at odds on that issue, too.
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What the Senate-crafted plan will do
The budget and debt deal passed the Senate 81-18, with 27 of the yes votes coming from Republicans. Major provisions are listed below.
» Ends the shutdown immediately; White House budget office says federal workers should plan to return to work this morning
» Finances federal agencies through Jan. 15
» Workers furloughed without pay when the shutdown began Oct. 1 receive back pay
» Government's authority to borrow money extended until Feb. 7
» Department of Health and Human Services must certify that it can verify income eligibility of people applying for government subsidies for health insurance
How the House voted: 285-144
198 aye; 2 not voting
87 aye; 144 nay; 1 not voting
WASHINGTON — For the Republicans who despise President Barack Obama's health care law, the past few weeks should have been a singular moment to turn its problem-plagued rollout into an argument against it. Instead, in a futile campaign to strip the law of federal money, the party focused harsh scrutiny on its own divisions, hurt its national standing and undermined its ability to win concessions from Democrats. Then they surrendered almost unconditionally.
“If you look back in time and evaluate the last couple of weeks, it should be titled 'The Time of Great Lost Opportunity,' ” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, among the many Republicans who argued that support for the health care law would collapse once the public saw how disastrous it really was.
“It has been the best two weeks for the Democratic Party in recent times, because they were out of the spotlight and didn't have to showcase their ideas,” Graham added.
By the thousands, meanwhile, furloughed federal workers began returning to work across the country Thursday after 16 days off the job due to the partial government shutdown.
The Office of Personnel Management announced that workers should return to work on their next regularly scheduled work day, noting that is Thursday for most workers. Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of workers have been furloughed since the shutdown began Oct. 1.
The office encouraged agencies to be flexible for a smooth transition by allowing telework and excused absences in some cases.
Senate Republicans tried to shake it all off like a bad dream, but their House counterparts, defeated but unbowed, agreed to table their fight until the next time.
“I'm not prepared to suggest that this has been a complete loss,” said Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming.
“We fought the good fight. We just didn't win,” conceded House Speaker John Boehner.
Now, near the end of a governing crisis that crippled Washington and dismayed a nation already deeply cynical about its political leaders, Republicans are struggling to answer even the most basic questions about the cause and effect of what has transpired over the past few weeks.
They disagree over how, or even whether, they might grow from the experience. Many could not comprehend how they had failed to prevent such avoidable, self-inflicted wounds. Others could not explain why it took so much damage, to their party and the millions of people inconvenienced and worse by the showdown and the shutdown, to end up right where so many of them expected.
“Someone would have to explain that to me,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “I knew how it was going to end.”
“I'm trying to forget it,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, still in disbelief that many of her fellow Republicans could not grasp that this was a losing battle. “Here we are. Here we are. We predicted it. Nobody wanted it to be this way.”
All the while, they had the public on their side on the other issues that they could have litigated in the court of public opinion, like the need to get control of the nation's long-term debt. And although they started the process last month with major advantages — a president on the defensive over an unsteady response to the war in Syria and an agreement by Democrats to keep financing the government at levels that many liberals felt were far too low — their fixation on the health care law prevented them from ever using their leverage.
“We managed to divide ourselves on something we were unified on, over a goal that wasn't achievable,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “The president probably had the worst August and early September any president could have had. And we managed to change the topic.”
The question so crucial to the Republican Party's viability now, heading into the 2014 congressional elections and beyond, is whether it has been so stung by the fallout that the conservatives who insisted on leading this fight will shy away in the months ahead when the government runs out of money and exhausts its borrowing authority yet again.
The deal reached Wednesday would finance the government only through Jan. 15 and lift the debt ceiling through Feb. 7. Some top Republicans suggest that this confrontation, one that some of the most conservative Tea Party-aligned Republicans have been itching for since they arrived, ended so badly for them that it would curb the appetite for another in just a few short months.
Many Republicans are calling for a refocusing of priorities, saying the party must turn to bigger issues like revising the unwieldy and unpopular tax code and reducing the long-term deficit. As for the health law, some believe there is a more winnable fight to be had with tough congressional scrutiny of its rollout over the next year.
“Now we're going to shift to oversight of the health care law, and clearly there are huge problems,” said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., who leads the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. “Now we're going to have to pursue what is this law really doing for Americans. Is it working and is it delivering?”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said, “We can all take a deep breath and basically refocus.”
In the Senate, there were already signs that an emergent group of 14 centrist senators from both parties was looking to make an impact on the fiscal battles ahead. The group, led by Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has already planned to meet in the coming weeks. McCain, also a member, said Wednesday, “We are not going to let this kind of partisanship cripple this body and injure the American people.”
Speaker Boehner's strategy always involved a gamble that his members would come away from this clash chastened. He intentionally allowed his most conservative members to sit in the driver's seat as they tried in vain to get the Senate to accept one failed measure after another — first to defund the health care law, then to delay it, then to chip away at it. His hope was that they would realize that the fight was not worth having again.
The worry among many Republicans is that the Tea Party flank will not get the message, mainly because their gerrymandered districts are so conservative that they do not have to listen.
Some fear that history is repeating itself. After Mitt Romney's 2012 defeat, in which the Republicans lost the popular presidential vote for the fifth time in six elections, the party tried to regroup. Its establishment warned that it had to stop being so shrill, so exclusionary and so narrowly focused on issues that alienate large chunks of voters who might otherwise think about being Republicans.
Certainly, the budget fight showed that congressional Republicans have divergent ideas about how to heed that advice.
On Wednesday, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., offered his party some thoughts on what it should do about the health care law come January and February.
“The natural inclination is to say, 'No, it'll be exactly the same,' ” he said. “But if we can figure out a way to drive that message home that this is about fairness, this is about principle, then the outcome may well be different.”
This report includes material from the New York Times and the Associated Press.