WASHINGTON — Congress and President Barack Obama have not yet found a way to end the U.S. government shutdown, but they are reassuring 800,000 sidelined federal workers that they will be reimbursed for lost pay once the government reopens.
With the partial shutdown entering its fifth day, the Republican-run House passed a bill yesterday that would make sure the furloughed workers get paid for the days they could not work. The White House backs the bill and the Senate was expected to approve it, too, but the timing was unclear.
The 407-0 vote in the House of Representatives was uniquely bipartisan, even as lawmakers continued their partisan rhetoric.
"This is not their fault and they should not suffer as a result," Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, said of federal workers. "This bill is the least we should do. Our hard-working public servants should not become collateral damage in the political games and ideological wars that Republicans are waging."
Rep. Michael Turner, an Ohio Republican, said federal workers shouldn't have to worry about paying their bills while Congress and the White House fight over funding the government.
"They have child care expenses, house payments to make, kids that are in college, and while the president refuses to negotiate, while he's playing politics, they shouldn't worry about whether or not they can make ends meet," Turner said.
But even as Congress and the White House rallied around the bill, one outside group said it "demonstrates the stupidity of the shutdown."
Making the shutdown less painful for 800,000 federal employees will encourage Congress and the White House to extend it even longer, driving up the cost, said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Ellis said "essential" federal workers who stayed on the job "will feel like suckers because they've been working while the others essentially are getting paid vacations."
The White House has opposed other piecemeal efforts by House Republicans to restore money to some functions of government during the partial shutdown. White House officials have said the House should reopen the entire government and not pick some agencies and programs over others.
In the 1995-96 government shutdowns, furloughed workers were retroactively given full pay.
Despite the White House's declared appreciation of the essential role of federal workers, there appeared no sign of a breakthrough in getting them back to work.
Lawmakers keep replaying the same script on Capitol Hill: House Republicans pass piecemeal bills to reopen popular and politically sensitive programs — on Friday, disaster relief and food aid for the poor — while Democrats insist that the House vote on a straightforward Senate-passed measure to reopen all of the government.
"We know that there are enough members in the House of Representatives — Democrats and Republicans — who are prepared to vote to reopen the government,' Obama said in an Associated Press interview Friday. "The only thing that is keeping that from happening is Speaker (John) Boehner has made a decision that he is going to hold out to see if he can get additional concessions from us."
There seemed little chance of that.
For one thing, flinching by either side on the shutdown might be seen as weakening one's hand in an even more important fight looming just over the horizon as the combatants in Washington increasingly shifted their focus to a midmonth deadline for averting a first-ever default.
"This isn't some damn game," Boehner said as the White House and Democrats held to their position of agreeing to negotiate only after the government is reopened and the $16.7 trillion debt limit raised.
Republicans pointed to a quote in The Wall Street Journal from an anonymous White House official that "we are winning ... It doesn't really matter to us" how long the shutdown lasts.
At issue in the shutdown is a temporary funding measure to keep the government fully open through mid-November or mid-December.
More than 100 stopgap continuing resolutions have passed without much difficulty since the last shutdown in 1996. But hardcore conservative tea party Republicans, their urgency intensified by the rollout of health insurance marketplaces this month, are demanding concessions in Obama's new health care law as their price for the funding legislation, sparking the shutdown impasse with Democrats.
Obama has said he won't negotiate on the temporary spending bill or upcoming debt limit measure, arguing they should be sent to him free of Republican add-ons. Congress, whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans, routinely sent Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, "clean" stopgap spending bills and debt-limit increases.
House Republicans appeared to be shifting their demands, deemphasizing their previous insistence on defunding the health care overhaul in exchange for reopening the government. Instead, they ramped up calls for cuts in federal benefit programs and future deficits, items that Boehner has said repeatedly will be part of any talks on debt limit legislation.
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