Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Shutdown: Congress Stuck In Funding Stalemate

Washington Post
October 1, 2013
Pg. 1


By Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane
The U.S. government began to shut down for the first time in 17 years early Tuesday, after a Congress bitterly divided over President Obama’s signature health-care initiative failed to reach agreement to fund federal agencies.
Hours before a midnight deadline, the Republican House passed its third proposal in two weeks to fund the government for a matter of weeks. Like the previous plans, the new one sought to undermine the Affordable Care Act, this time by delaying enforcement of the “individual mandate,” a cornerstone of the law that requires all Americans to obtain health insurance.
The new measure also sought to strip lawmakers and their aides of long-standing government health benefits.
The Democratic-led Senate quickly rejected that plan on a party-line vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) urged House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to abandon the assault on the health-care law and pass a simple bill to keep the government open. Otherwise, Reid warned, “the responsibility for this Republican government shutdown will rest squarely on his shoulders.”
Boehner refused to yield. He instead won approval, in a 1 a.m. largely party-line roll call, requesting a special House-Senate committee to meet in the coming days to resolve differences between the two parties, leaving in limbo the fate of millions of federal workers and the services they provide.
Shortly before midnight, the White House budget office issued a memo instructing agencies to “execute plans for an orderly shutdown due to the absence of appropriations.”
The impasse means 800,000 federal workers will be furloughed Tuesday. National parks, monuments and museums, as well as most federal offices, will close. Tens of thousands of air-traffic controllers, prison guards and Border Patrol agents will be required to serve without pay. And many congressional hearings — including one scheduled for Tuesday on last month’s Washington Navy Yard shootings — will be postponed.
In a last-minute ray of hope for active-duty troops, Congress on Monday approved and sent to the White House an agreement to keep issuing military paychecks. But Obama warned that the broader economy, which is finally starting to recover from the shocks of the past six years, would take a substantial hit if congressional gridlock shutters “America’s largest employer.”
“Keeping the people’s government open is not a concession to me. Keeping vital services running and hundreds of thousands of Americans on the job is not something you ‘give’ to the other side. It’s our basic responsibility,” Obama said in a statement Monday evening at the White House.
Privately, senior Republicans predicted that the closure would last at least a week. A fraction of today’s House Republicans were on Capitol Hill in 1995 and 1996 when a Republican-led Congress last shut down the government in a dispute over the budget with a Democratic president. Younger lawmakers don’t remember the pain the shutdown caused constituents, senior Republicans said. And many of them now question the conventional wisdom that the closures weakened the GOP presidential candidate in 1996 and nearly cost the party control of the House.
Democrats predicted that if the shutdown stretches into the weekend, the government-funding dispute could be rolled into an even more serious battle over the $16.7 trillion federal debt limit. The Treasury Department will begin running short of cash to pay the nation’s bills as soon as Oct. 17 unless Congress approves additional borrowing authority. With so little time remaining to avoid what would be the nation’s first default, Democratic aides predicted that negotiations to reopen the government may be merged into the debt-limit talks.
On Monday evening, Obama telephoned Boehner to urge him to reconsider his stance on the health-care law. In a call that lasted nearly 10 minutes, according to Boehner’s office, the president reiterated his insistence that there would be no negotiations over the debt limit, and that Congress must pay the bills it has incurred.
Boehner responded by mocking Obama in a speech on the House floor.
“  ‘I’m not going to negotiate,’ ” he said, quoting Obama. “I would say to the president: This is not about me. It’s not about Republicans here in Congress. It’s about fairness.”
The speech drew applause for the embattled speaker, who argued passionately that Republicans were merely seeking “fairness” for working people. Obama has delayed a mandate for employers to insure workers and delayed other requirements for big unions, Boehner said. “Yet they stick our constituents with a bill they don’t like and a bill they can’t afford,” he said.
Despite the show of unity, Republicans on both sides of the Capitol remain deeply divided about the attack on the health-care law. In the House, a group of more moderate Republicans was seething about the decision to bow to the forces that oppose the Affordable Care Act, led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and his allies on the right, including such outside groups as Heritage Action for America.
On Monday, some publicly urged Boehner to drop the issue and seek the help of House Democrats to pass the simple government-funding bill that the Senate approved last week.
“I don’t want to shut down the government,” said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), who is trying to become her state’s first GOP senator since the 1950s, adding that she was inclined to support a “clean” funding bill.
Frustrations also were simmering among Senate Republicans, who complained that House leaders were pressing the attack in direct opposition to public opinion. Polls show that voters overwhelmingly disapprove of using the threat of a shutdown to defund the health-care law and that blame for a shutdown will fall squarely on Republicans.
“By wanting to repeal Obamacare using this method, it defies what the popular will is,” said Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, who campaigned last year on behalf of his party’s national ticket.
“I campaigned in 2012 all over this country for months: ‘Repeal and replace Obamacare.’ That was not the mandate of the voters,” McCain said. “If they wanted to repeal Obamacare, the 2012 election would have been probably significantly different.”
Adding to the tension Monday was Boehner’s decision to add the provision that would strip lawmakers, congressional staff members and White House aides of the employer subsidies for health insurance they have received for many years.
Now that lawmakers and their aides must join the new health-insurance exchanges, some conservative groups have criticized the subsidies, worth about $5,000 a year for individual coverage and $10,000 for families, as a “special exemption” from the new law. By including the provision, House leaders hoped to attract conservative support and put pressure on Senate Democrats, who faced the choice of shutting down the government to protect their own perks.
“On what flooding peninsula can you stand when it’s a question of delaying the individual mandate, ending member subsidies and funding the government?” said Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.). If Reid kills it, “the senators he’s going to protect become the subject of incredible scrutiny.”
Even some Republicans were uneasy about the prospect of dealing their aides — and some of their colleagues — the equivalent of a big pay cut. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) called it an “outrage,” adding that Boehner had worked directly with Reid and the Obama administration to make sure the subsidies would stay in place when congressional employees join the exchanges next year.
Boehner and his team presented the proposal to rank-and-file Republicans in a closed-door meeting Monday. For more than an hour and a half, lawmakers argued about the plan. They emerged with an unusual number of public dissenters, including Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.), one of a dozen Republicans who ultimately voted against the proposal.
“I don’t want to be the facilitator of a disastrous process and plan,” he said.
Still, most Republicans endorsed the deal, even if somewhat reluctantly. “I think this is a principled call by leadership and it has the support of the con­ference,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), one of Boehner’s closest friends.
Democrats, meanwhile, were united against any attempt by Republicans to extract concessions now, especially with the larger fight over the debt limit swiftly approaching.
“The bottom line is very simple,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “You negotiate on this, they will up the ante for the debt limit.”
Ed O’Keefe, Rosalind S. Helderman, Jackie Kucinich and Jeff Simon contributed to this report.
FAQ: How will a government shutdown affect federal workers?
A list of key questions and answers from Washington Post coverage of the impact on federal government employees.
When will I know if I'll be furloughed because of a shutdown?
Federal workers should have received an e-mail or phone call from their supervisors by Monday telling them to report for work or remain at home.
Those who are nonessential can have a few hours Tuesday morning to come into the office to secure their files, send e-mails and put things in order before signing off. It is illegal for them to conduct any work until they are called back to their jobs.
Who is "exempt" and who's not?
That's up to individual agencies. A recent Office of Management and Budget memo told agencies to review plans they made in 2011. The government is required by law to maintain functions that:
*Provide for the national security, including the conduct of foreign relations.
*Provide for benefit payments and the performance of contract obligations under no-year or multi-year contracts.
*Protect life and property.
Who decides?
Federal managers must review which of their employees will be excepted or exempted and required to work, and which are be non-excepted or non-exempted and sent home.
How many workers will be affected?
A government shutdown jeopardizes the paychecks of more than 800,000 federal workers who will be told to stay home. The federal government has more than 2 million employees. Those workers who remain on the job as well as active military would be entitled to their salaries, but might not be paid on time.
Will I be paid?
The OMB memo says much the same: "Without further specific direction or enactment by Congress, all excepted employees are entitled to receive payment for obligations incurred by their agencies for their performance of excepted work during the period of the appropriations lapse. After appropriations are enacted, payroll centers will pay all excepted employees for time worked."
The memo does not directly address pay for "non-exempt" employees. The Office of Personnel Management guidance says that "Congress will determine whether furloughed employees receive pay for the furlough period."
If I am paid, will my paycheck be on time?
Gregory Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, said the administration officials indicated that employees who are required to work would be paid "eventually."
"They can't guarantee [the workers] will be paid on time," Junemann said. "They are pretty comfortable with the statement that everybody who works will be paid eventually." Those who are furloughed might be paid, but Republicans could move to block that.
If I'm furloughed, why can't I take annual leave or other paid time off instead?
Because that creates a debt obligation to the government not payable under the Antideficiency Act if no appropriation has been made. This includes a requirement to cancel any paid leave that had been scheduled.
Employees cannot substitute paid leave for furlough time, and even previously scheduled paid time off must be canceled "because the requirement to furlough supersedes leave and other paid time off rights."
How would a new plan offered by House Republicans affect me?
A new plan, like those Republicans have pushed before, would increase employee contributions to their retirement benefits.
The plan now under discussion apparently is like a bill that a Republican-majority House approved in December. Had it passed the Senate, the measure would have required federal workers to pay an additional 5 percent of their salary over five years toward their retirement contributions, saving the government about $80 billion.
How is this possible shutdown different from previous ones?
Compared with the shutdowns of the 1990s, many more federal workers are in danger of being furloughed this year, because Congress has not passed a single funding bill. In the past, Congress had passed appropriations bills that funded various large agencies, including the Defense Department, meaning they could continue to operate even if other parts of the government could not.
What if I'm a government contractor?
Contractors said they assumed they will receive little notice about whether their employees will go to work. And then, they would have to decide - on a contract-by-contract basis - what to do with those workers.
Will I be reimbursed for time missed?
In past shutdowns, federal employees have been reimbursed for time missed, said Alan Chvotkin, counsel at the Professional Services Council, an industry group. But contractors have not fared as well.
"Contractors have never been reimbursed," Chvotkin said. A shutdown has been "just lost revenue, lost salary to those affected."
While there is no law requiring that nonessential employees be compensated if they are ordered off the job, Congress has in the past voted to reimburse their losses once shutdowns ended.
But this go-round may be different. The bitterly divided Congress includes many lawmakers who are unsympathetic to the plight of federal workers and could be loath to help them recoup their money.
Will overseas military operations be affected?
Defense Department spokesman George Little said overseas operations, including those in Afghanistan, will not be directly affected.
What's the status of employee benefits?
Coverage under the federal employee health insurance program would continue, with the employees' share accumulating until they return to paid status. Coverage under the life insurance program also will continue, without cost to the employee. For the long-term care and vision and dental insurance programs, enrollees must continue to pay the premiums; those paying through payroll deduction will be billed directly if the unpaid period lasts of weeks.
What if I'm deemed "essential" but get sick?
Essential employees who are too sick to work during a shutdown will face the same uncertainty over their pay for the time off work as those who are furloughed.
If I'm a retired federal worker, will I still get my check?
For millions of federal retirees who may be concerned about their annuity checks, which arrive on the first day of each month, the OPM said they will be paid on Oct. 1 as normal.
Federal retirement payments, like payments such as Social Security benefits, fall under the "mandatory" budget category not funded through annual appropriations and thus not affected by these kinds of funding deadlocks. According to the OPM, federal retirees "will still receive their scheduled annuity payments on the first business day of the month."
How does a shutdown end?
It's up to Congress and the White House. No doubt there will be plenty of pressure from the public and workforce. There is no law setting a time limit.
-- From staff reports

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