As U.S. shutdown drags on, House votes to pay furloughed workers

US capitol building, government shutdown
U.S. Capitol in Washington October 5, 2013.
Credit: Reuters

Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives agreed on Saturday to retroactively pay 800,000 furloughed federal employees once the government reopens, but there was no end in sight to the shutdown that was in its fifth day.

The House of Representatives passed the bill unanimously and it is expected to clear the Senate and be signed by President Barack Obama. It was a rare moment of cooperation in the House as the two parties were entrenched in their positions on the shutdown.

The standoff, which began at the start of the new fiscal year on Tuesday and shuttered all but essential government operations, is the latest in a series of budget fights between Obama and Republicans.

In the past, Republicans have insisted on spending cuts as the price for budget deals or lifting of the government debt limit. Their current stand is aimed at derailing the president’s landmark healthcare reform law to expand insurance to millions without coverage.

Republicans argue that the law is a massive government intrusion into private medicine that will cause insurance premiums to skyrocket, put people out of work and eventually lead to socialized medicine. They have refused to pass a funding bill without attaching measures that would undercut the law, known as Obamacare.

Obama and his fellow Democrats vow that they will make no such concessions on the funding bill or on raising the debt ceiling, which must be done by October 17 to avoid default.

Obama said in an interview with the Associated Press released on Saturday that he does not expect to have to take any unusual steps to prevent the United States from defaulting on its debt because he believes Congress will raise the debt ceiling.

“I don’t expect to get there,” Obama said. “There were at least some quotes yesterday that Speaker Boehner is willing to make sure that we don’t default,” he said, referring to House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican.

“And I’m pretty willing to bet that there are enough votes in the House of Representatives right now to make sure that the United States doesn’t end up being a deadbeat,” Obama said.

In his radio address on Saturday, Obama said the government shutdown was having a “heartbreaking” impact on ordinary Americans, and renewed his call on Republicans in Congress to “stop the farce” and pass a funding bill without conditions.

UNCERTAINTY CONTINUES

While the retroactive pay bill enjoys bipartisan support, it does not end the uncertainty that federal workers face about when the government will reopen and they will be paid.

“These employees, who provide vital services to the American people, will have a little peace of mind,” with passage of this bill, said Joseph Beaudoin, President of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.

Democratic leaders in the House said on Friday they were working on a maneuver that, if successful, would force a vote on legislation to fully reopen the government.

The plan involves a rarely used “discharge petition” that would dislodge an existing bill from a committee and send it to the House floor if a simple majority of lawmakers in the chamber sign the petition.

Such a move would take a week or so to clear procedural hurdles in the House, according to Representative George Miller, a Democrat. A House vote might not come until at least October 14, which is a federal holiday, Miller said.

In the meantime, the shutdown is affecting the economy across the country, from companies that deal with government contracts to national parks that normally generate millions of dollars a day in tourism revenues.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican, sent a letter to Obama on Friday urging him to either back a bill to reopen national parks such as the Grand Canyon, or at least allow states to use state and private funding to reopen them.

Facing public anger over the government shutdown, House Republicans have adopted a strategy of voting piecemeal to fund some popular federal agencies – like the Veterans Administration, the National Park Service and the National Institutes of Health – that are partially closed.

Democrats have rejected that, arguing that Congress has a duty to pass a bill funding the entire government.

DEBT CEILING

Republicans are also seeking concessions in exchange for raising the nation’s $16.7 trillion debt limit, which is due to be reached October 17. If the borrowing cap is not increased, the United States will go into default, with what officials and economists say would be seriously damaging consequences for the U.S. and global economies.

Boehner tried on Friday to squelch reports that he would ease the way to a debt ceiling increase, stressing that House Republicans would continue to insist on budget cuts as a condition of raising the borrowing authority.

Republicans blame the White House for the fiscal deadlock, saying the president is stubbornly refusing to compromise.

“Republicans are eager to end the shutdown and move ahead with the fiscal and economic reforms that our country so urgently needs,” Senator John Cornyn said in the Republican weekly address on Saturday. “But we’re never going to make real progress without greater cooperation from our friends across the aisle.”

“The Democrats have calculated that by prolonging the shutdown, and maximizing the pain, they can bully Republicans into doing whatever President Obama and Majority Leader (Harry) Reid want them to do,” Cornyn said.

The president and Democratic leaders in Congress have said that they are open to bartering over budget issues, but not under the threat of a shutdown, and that raising the debt limit – and avoiding default – is non-negotiable.

The president canceled a week-long trip to Asia next week to deal with the crisis.

(Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal, Richard Cowan and Tim Reid; Writing by Claudia Parsons; Editing by Vicki Allen and Jackie Frank)


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