With less than three days before the current fiscal 2011 continuing resolution expires, the Office of Management and Budget has instructed agency leaders to begin prepping their workforce for a potential government shutdown.
"We are encouraging you to communicate with senior managers throughout your organizations as appropriate to ensure you have their feedback and input on plans to date," OMB Deputy Director Jeffrey Zients wrote in a memo on Monday to agency deputy secretaries and chiefs of staff. "These communications should be focused on the logistical and managerial issues related to a potential shutdown to ensure that managers are prepared to implement your shutdown plans should the need arise."
The memo, first reported by The Washington Post, is a major tactical shift by the White House, which up until now had stuck to a script that downplayed the potential for a government shutdown. But with funding for the fiscal year set to expire at 11:59 p.m. on Friday, April 8, a harsh reality appears to be setting in.
"Given the realities of the calendar, good management requires that we continue contingency planning for an orderly shutdown should the negotiations not be completed by the end of the current CR," Zients wrote.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Tuesday morning that it would be "irresponsible not to go through the motions … that are on the books and have been on the books since the 1980s toward preparing for a situation where funding is cut off."
At an afternoon press briefing with reporters, Carney said OMB would share more details later this week on which portions of the government would continue to operate in the event of a shutdown. He would not address the question of how many federal employees could potentially face furloughs if an agreement is not reached.
The Obama administration still has not instructed agencies to release copies of their individual shutdown guidance spelling out which employees would be deemed "essential" and allowed to continue working during a shutdown and who would be ordered to stay home, potentially without pay.
The contingency plans, Zients wrote, are still being refined and updated. "We know that the current uncertainty and threat of a shutdown is a tremendous burden on federal employees, and are very much aware that a shutdown -- should it occur -- would impose hardships on many employees," he wrote. "We are continuing to monitor the status of negotiations, and will work with you to best prepare the hard-working men and women of our workforce for any contingency."
Federal labor unions, meanwhile, have called for the contingency plans to be released immediately. "With a potential government shutdown just days away, it is imperative that federal employees and their union representatives gain access to these documents," National Federation of Federal Employees President William Dougan wrote in a letter to Obama on Tuesday. "It is detrimental to the morale and overall well-being of the workforce to withhold these plans any longer."
Also on Tuesday, Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., chairman of the Committee on House Administration, ordered his colleagues to draw up lists of Capitol Hill staffers who will be furloughed in the event of a shutdown.
House and Senate leaders met with President Obama and Vice President Biden on Tuesday morning to discuss the budget. The meeting did not lead to an agreement, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., scheduled another meeting for Tuesday at 4 p.m. If an agreement is not hammered out, Obama said, he would expect all parties to resume meetings at the White House on Wednesday.
Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, Obama said the White House had more than met Republicans halfway in their negotiations. "We are now closer than we have ever been to getting an agreement," Obama said. . "There is no reason why we should not get an agreement."
Boehner has argued that the cuts the White House has offered are not sufficient.
"If everyone is reasonable," an agreement is still within reach, Carney said. The spokesman suggested that rather than make steep cuts in education and medical research, as House Republicans have proposed, the funding bill should eliminate earmarks for transportation projects and cuts in military spending.
"We've demonstrated our willingness to come a long way and accept cuts that in an ideal world we would not accept," Carney said. "And I think the American people expect all sides to move off their starting position to settle for less than their perfect world in the name of doing the business of the American people."
One last-ditch effort to avoid a shutdown, however, appeared to come up short. House Republicans proposed a one-week continuing resolution that would have cut $12 billion in government spending and funded the Pentagon for the remainder of the fiscal year. But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told reporters on Tuesday that the White House rejected the measure.
Obama countered that his administration already had approved two short-term spending resolutions in recent weeks and that incremental budgeting "is not a way to run a government." The president said if an agreement were reached in the coming days and Congress needed additional time to file the necessary paperwork, he would sign a "clean" continuing resolution [without any cuts] to keep the government operating.