The US budget crisis was close to being significantly eased, if not finally resolved, last night as Congress passed legislation authorising the return to work of government workers kept idle without pay for three weeks.
After Republicans backed away from their threat to keep the government partially shut down until a final deal was reached with President Bill Clinton on balancing the federal budget within seven years, the House of Representatives approved legislation for an immediate return to work of government workers.
Assuming approval later last night by the Senate and by the President, the law should mean a gradual return to normal of US government business by this morning, for instance with a reopening of many essential services as well as parks and monuments that have been closed to tourists.
But the measure, which guarantees full wages and back pay for some 780,000 federal workers affected by the crisis, will remain in effect only until 26 January, while negotiations continue between Congress and the White House on the fundamental issue of balancing the US budget.
Moreover, once back at their desks many federal workers might find themselves with little to do, because the budgets for the operation of all but the most socially sensitive federal programmes, such as meals-on-wheels, would remain blocked until a final budget agreement is worked out.
The humiliating about-face by Republicans in the House reflected a growing concern among their leaders, notably the Speaker, Newt Gingrich, that voters were losing patience with the budget squabbling and blaming them, rather than the White House, for the entire mess.
Until Thursday, the House Republicans were adamant that they would resist restoring government operations until a final agreement on balancing the budget had been reached. A first proposal by Mr Gingrich late on Thursday to pay federal workers at least until mid-March was rudely rejected by his own members at a fractious party meeting on Thursday night. He finally won support to pay them for a much shorter period yesterday morning.
The squirming of the Republicans on Capitol Hill has brought cheer, by contrast, to the White House, which believes it is still winning the public opinion battle on the budget issue. Any suggestion that Mr Gingrich is losing control of his own rank and file only bolsters President Clinton's confidence.
But Mr Gingrich yesterday urged the President to take advantage of the temporary end of the crisis by coming forward with new proposals finally to ensure that America can eliminate its budget deficit by 2002. "The challenge is now for Bill Clinton. The burden is now on his desk and his shoulders," he said.
Another round of negotiations on the balanced budget was due to start last night.
There is still little to suggest, however, that the two sides will be able to close the gap between their positions quickly, leaving open the possibility that the government will simply be forced to close down again on 26 January, three days after the President delivers this year's State of the Union address to Congress.
While Mr Clinton has promised to co-operate in finding ways to balance the budget within the seven years sought by the Republicans, he remains opposed to the cuts that would almost certainly be necessary in such politically- sensitive programmes as health care for the poor and elderly.