WASHINGTON — Federal agencies, parks, museums and monuments began to reopen Thursday morning, after a chastened Congress ended a bitter funding standoff that triggered a 16-day government closure and drove the nation toward the brink of default.
The agreement struck by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., funds agencies through mid-January, calls hundreds of thousands of civil servants back to work and raises the $16.7 trillion debt limit.
"There are no winners here," President Barack Obama said Thursday at the White House. "These last few weeks have inflicted completely unnecessary damage on our economy."
Obama called on Congress to resist "pressure from the extremes" and "understand that how business is done in this town has to change." He urged lawmakers to pursue a "balanced approach to a responsible budget" and to pass comprehensive immigration reform and a new farm bill.
And he offered thanks and encouragement to federal workers as they returned to their jobs. "What you do is important, and don't let anybody else tell you different," he said.
Top officials in his administration conveyed the same message.
"Good morning folks, thank you for your service," called out Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, as no-longer-furloughed civil servants streamed from the nearby Smithsonian Metro station through the doors of agency headquarters.
Vice President Joe Biden greeted employees at the Environmental Protection Agency, and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough shook hands with returning workers at the guarded gate outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
At the National Zoo, officials turned the popular panda cam back on, revealing an older, fatter and more robust black and white cub than was last seen more than two weeks earlier. The cub, now nearly two months old, gained two pounds during the shutdown, the zoo announced Thursday.
The Department of Veteran Affairs said it would issue benefit payments to about 5 million veterans, survivors and their families on Nov. 1 as scheduled now that funding has been restored. The VA had warned that if the shutdown continued to the end of the month, it would run out of funds and be unable to issue checks, a disclosure that caused major consternation among lawmakers and veterans.
The bill passed late Wednesday ended a stalemate created last month, when hard-line conservatives pushed Republican leaders to use the threat of shutdown to block a landmark expansion of federally funded health coverage.
That campaign, however, succeeded mainly in undermining popular support for the Republican Party. By the end, dozens of anxious GOP lawmakers were ready to give Obama almost exactly what he requested months ago: a bill to fund the government and increase the Treasury Department's borrowing power with no strings attached.
The Senate overwhelmingly ratified the deal Wednesday evening, 81 to 18, with more than half of Senate Republicans voting yes. A few hours later, the House followed suit, approving the measure 285 to 144. Eighty-seven Republicans joined a united Democratic caucus in approving the measure, allowing Congress to meet a critical Treasury Department deadline with one day to spare.
Obama signed the measure into law shortly after midnight, reopening parks and monuments across the nation, restoring government services and putting furloughed federal employees back on the job.
In his remarks Thursday, Obama said the shutdown and the threat of a U.S. default probably slowed economic growth, set back hiring and increased borrowing costs, adding to deficit that has been shrinking.
"That's not a surprise that the American people are completely fed up with Washington," Obama said. "At a moment when our economic recovery demands more jobs, more momentum, we've got yet another self-inflicted crisis that set our economy back. And for what? There was no economic rationale for all of this."
He added: "Probably nothing has done more damage to America's credibility in the world, our standing with other countries, than the spectacle that we've seen these past several weeks. It's encouraged our enemies, it's emboldened our competitors, and it's depressed our friends, who look to us for steady leadership."
Obama predicted that "we'll bounce back from this," but he cautioned that it "won't be easy." He said, "There's a lot of noise out there, and the pressure from the extremes affect how lot of members of Congress see the day-to-day work that's supposed to be done here."