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The federal government is about to narrowly avoid another shutdown

As it stands right now, the federal government will run out of money on Wednesday, December 16.

Luckily — unlike the last several times Congress brought the government to the brink of a shutdown — this time, they have a plan to fix it.

That's right: Democrats and Republicans have actually negotiated a deal. They'll need to pass another short-term extension to make the time to pass the full deal, but they still could pass the funding package (as well as a package of tax-cut extensions) as early as Thursday night.

And that's thanks in large part to new House Speaker Paul Ryan.

When it comes to rounding up votes for a spending bill, Ryan is in exactly the same impossible position his predecessor John Boehner was in: Any spending bill that doesn't also include a conservative wish list of policy changes (known as "riders") won't get enough Republican votes to pass on its own. So Ryan, like Boehner, will have to rely on Democratic votes to make up the difference.

But the difference is that while Boehner made a show of trying to give conservative Republicans what they wanted and then buckling under to Democrats when the conservative strategy inevitably failed, Ryan has simply accepted that he's going to need to negotiate with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to get the job done. And while he understands that he won't be able to get every Republican to vote for a passable spending bill anyway, he's still giving conservative Republicans the impression that they're involved in the process — and both Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are working to make sure there are policy wins for Republicans in the ultimate deal.

It doesn't hurt that Congress will also be voting on its now-traditional year-end "tax extender" package — in which it gives corporations billions of dollars in tax breaks — around the same time it votes on the funding bill. So Republicans will have something to vote for enthusiastically, while Democrats will help keep the government running.

Here's how the government funding package will pass, and what it will include.

Congress tiptoed right up to the deadline — but probably won't quite go over it

When Ryan was elected speaker, his predecessor Boehner had made his life a little easier — but he didn't eliminate all obstacles. Right before he stepped down, Boehner (along with other Democratic and Republican leaders) negotiated a deal that would set government funding targets and raise the debt ceiling all the way through March 2017.

That means that in 2016, Congress will be able to return to its typical appropriations process — where individual committees write and pass bills to fund individual Cabinet departments over the course of the year. But Congress has to get to 2016 first. And the last bill that was passed to actually fund the government (instead of setting targets), under Boehner, only lasted until December 11.

Republicans and Democrats have been negotiating over a bill to extend funding past the 11th for a few weeks. But it became clear last week that they weren't going to be able to reach an agreement by then, so both chambers quickly passed a bill to extend the deadline through December 16. They're expected to pass another short-term extension — through the 22 — to get enough time to pass the full package through both chsmbers.

Instead of a fight over one big policy, Congress negotiated over a lot of little ones

The deal didn't just materialize out of nowhere. Democrats and Republicans have been sending proposals and counterproposals for the funding bill and the tax extender package back and forth for a while, and Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi have started negotiating directly, as well.

Unlike the past several government funding battles, which have hinged on one big policy that conservative Republicans want to change using the funding bill — repealing Obamacare, defunding Planned Parenthood, stopping Obama's executive actions on immigration — this month's fight was more of a negotiation over several smaller issues, with both Democrats and Republicans trying to get things out of it.

Keep Syrians Out protester

(Jewel Samad/AFP)

Syrian refugees and immigration issues. In November, when the House passed a bill that would make it significantly harder for the US to accept refugees from Syria and Iraq, many people were expecting Republicans to demand that bill get included in the next government funding round. Theoretically, that could still happen — one conservative Republican, Matt Salmon, said this week that he was "actually a little optimistic." But other Republicans got cold feet over the bill after it passed, and the refugee bill was quietly dropped before the deal was finalized.

What's included instead is a bill that the House passed this week with significant support from Democrats as well as Republicans — and which President Obama literally asked for in his address to the nation Sunday night. That bill targets the visa waiver program, which allows people from certain developed countries (mostly in Europe and East Asia) to visit the US for up to three months without applying for a visa first. Under the bill the House passed, "nationals" of Syria, Iraq, Sudan, or Iran — as well as people who've traveled to certain countries (including Iraq and Syria) since 2011 — would have to apply for visas, even if they lived in a country under the visa waiver program. Some immigration advocates have criticized the bill, pointing out that because of the way Syrian citizenship works, people born to Syrian parents who have never been to Syria would still be treated as "Syrian nationals" under the bill. But for the most part, Democrats embraced the bill — on the logic that it's much more effective, and much less inhumane, than barring Syrian refugees.

Oil and environmental issues. The spending deal will include a provision allowing US oil companies to export oil abroad — something they've been barred from doing since 1973. That's a win for Republicans. But Republicans did not get all of the environmental policy riders they wanted — some Republicans were pushing for the spending bill to bar the EPA from enforcing the Obama administration's emissions regulations, but it was not added over Democrats' objections.

Congress is also supposed to pass a tax break package and a bill for 9/11 first responders before Christmas

As many issues are getting tied into the spending bill, it's not even the only bill that Congress is expected to vote on in December.

Tax extenders. A year ago, Congress resurrected about $42 billion of corporate tax breaks that had expired at the end of 2013 — applying them retroactively so they counted for 2014 taxes as well. Now Congress is expected to do the same so that the breaks count for 2015 taxes. (For a more complete explanation of tax extenders, check out my colleague Dylan Matthews's article from last year.) Right now it's expected that both houses of Congress can pass the tax extenders with primarily or exclusively Republican votes. But Democrats are still trying to negotiate over what the extender package will include — some Democrats wanted to tie family tax breaks (the child tax credit and earned income tax credit) to inflation, but that was resisted as too expensive.

9/11 first responders. Federal programs to help the police officers, firefighters, and others who were "first responders" to the 9/11 attacks — many of whom suffer from cancer or other health maladies — are set to expire at the end of the year. But after Congress got hit hard five years ago for letting these programs run up to the last minute before extending them — most prominently by Jon Stewart, who has made this a crusade — it looks like they're not keen on doing the same this year. Congress members have been negotiating a way for the programs to remain permanently, even though they haven't yet agreed on a way to pay for it. Senate Majority Leader McConnell has agreed it will be included in whatever end-of-year package gets passed.