Is Washington working? How Congress took a big step forward this week.

In a marked change of tone on Capitol Hill, the House Republican and Senate Democrat who hold Congress' purse strings made headway toward avoiding a March 27 government shutdown.

Mike Theiler/Reuters/File
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland makes remarks about Republican attempts to introduce women's health issues like Planned Parenthood and abortions into 2011 budget negotiations. This past week, her tone in discussing a government funding bill has been collaborative.

Don’t look now, but Congress is dangerously close to avoiding its second potential fiscal crackup in as many months.

No, it isn’t pretty. But it isn’t government-by-crisis – at least for the moment.

Behind the scenes this week, ultra-delicate bipartisan consultations over how to keep the government running after a March 27 deadline showed signs of progress. Legislative leaders in both parties, as well as President Obama, are expressing optimism that a compromise bill can be reached within the next two weeks, heading off a potential crisis well before the cliff's edge is in sight.

It's a fresh signal that, as spring dawns in Washington, the icy standoffs that defined the last two years of Congress could be melting – at least somewhat.

Already this year, House Republicans decided not to go to the wall when the debt ceiling needed to be raised. Instead they allowed the federal government to continue borrowing money for about six months in exchange for a promise from Senate Democrats to actually propose a budget this year (something Senate Democrats haven't done the past three years).

While the true test of whether this early thaw takes hold will come this summer when the debt limit is again reached, the indications from the most recent round of negotiations on fiscal matters appear positive.

The current talks center on passing a new continuing resolution to keep the government running. That is necessary because Congress didn't pass funding for the entire fiscal year, which begins in October, last fall. Instead, it's been running on a continuing resolution – a stopgap funding measure – that expires on March 27.

What is cause for optimism in Washington is that lawmakers are handling the talks with surprising equanimity.

The House, led by Appropriations Committee chairman Rep. Hal Rogers (R) of Kentucky, passed a government funding bill earlier this week that maintained the “sequester” cuts – the $85 billion in across-the-board reductions. But the bill also updated spending priorities at Pentagon, veterans affairs, and military construction to better handle the cuts, which went into effect March 1.

Significantly, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, did not respond by lashing out at Congressman Rogers for restoring flexibility to Republican priorities (defense) but not Democratic ones (such as health care).

She stressed to reporters on Thursday that she was working overtime to discuss potential changes to the House bill with Rogers, Senate leadership in both parties, and the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama.

“We are not in this to be provocative or pugilistic,” said Senator Mikulski, who has had her share of pugilistic moments over five terms of Senate service. 

Indeed, her plan was to leave the proposed House changes intact, while also updating the budgets for other federal departments, including Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Homeland Security, as well as government science spending.

What Mikulski did not do was insist on funding for issues like health-care priorities, which would have raised the specter of a Republican revolt. The decision wasn't easy. Leaving top liberal priorities behind after trying her best to include them was like being on “the last helicopter leaving the embassy in Saigon," Mikulski said.

But at day’s end, Mikulski praised the “good work” done by Rogers rather than picking a fight.

Mikulski will even offer her own version of a method to blunt the sequester championed by the Senate GOP in recent weeks: allowing the heads of government agencies greater latitude to petition Congress for budgetary changes.

Mikulski is pushing for her bill to be introduced on Monday and for votes during the next week. That timeline likely wouldn't take America anywhere near a government shutdown.

“This bill is well on its way to being bipartisan,” Mikulski said. “It’s taken a lot of give and take, and I will tell you ... it’s been very civil, very yeoman-like.”

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.