Thousands of Federal Workers in Limbo as Shutdown Drags On

On Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, “This shutdown is gonna get a lot worse tomorrow.” On Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, “This shutdown is gonna get a lot worse tomorrow.” J.Scott Applewhite/AP

Lawmakers on Sunday appeared far from reaching a budget compromise that would allow federal agencies to return to normal operations on Monday following a funding lapse that took effect at midnight Friday. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., put it: “This shutdown is gonna get a lot worse tomorrow.”

While Republicans and Democrats blamed each other for the standoff, the shutdown that began Saturday is the first to take place during one-party control of Congress and the White House.

The House passed a temporary funding bill late Thursday along party lines that would have continued funding through Feb. 16, but that measure was rejected by the Senate where the Republicans hold a narrow majority and need 60 votes for passage. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the House would accept a bill that extends funding through Feb. 8 to give lawmakers more time to reach a permanent agreement, and senators spent Sunday trying to work out a compromise. McConnell scheduled a vote for 1 a.m. Monday if Democrats wouldn’t agree to a vote sooner; by mid-afternoon the prospects appeared dim.

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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., led a press conference of female Democratic House members on Sunday to spell out agency priorities that would not move forward under another continuing resolution, such as Veterans Affairs Department investments, new National Institutes of Health research and tools to battle the opioid crisis. Pelosi said a deal could be struck within an hour if President Trump included Democrats in negotiations.

“There is a path forward,” Pelosi said, “and it’s a bipartisan path.” But asked if House Democrats would support an agreement that gives Trump the full funding he has requested for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Pelosi responded: “Oh, come on.”

GOP officials have used the fact that members of the military will be forced to work without pay during a shutdown as a cudgel in their public messaging. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blocked an effort to fast track a bill that would pay service members on time early Saturday morning.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., proposed the measure through unanimous consent rules at about 1:15 p.m. Saturday, noting that similar measures were enacted at the start of the 2013 shutdown.

"I remember in 2013, we did this right off the bat," she said. "I want to make sure that tonight we send a very clear signal that we don't want one moment to pass with there being any uncertainty of any soldier anywhere in the world, that they will be paid for the valiant work that they do on behalf of our national security."

But McConnell objected, noting that he hopes to secure a spending deal "before this becomes necessary."

While lawmakers angle to score political points or shift blame, thousands of federal workers and contractors are left in the lurch. OMB Director Mick Mulvaney directed agencies to begin orderly shutdown procedures, but many questions remained. Federal employees who perform critical functions related to national security, public safety and health will continue to work during a shutdown, but they won’t be paid until after appropriations are restored, meaning if a shutdown drags on, their paychecks will be delayed. Decisions about whether staff and contractors who support those critical personnel are exempt from the shutdown are less clear. OMB said those questions should be handled by executives at agencies themselves.

For employees who are furloughed during the shutdown, Congress in the past has authorized back pay, and the White House has said it supports back pay for those affected.

The administration is seeking to limit the number of employees who would face an immediate furlough, senior administration officials told reporters Friday night, looking to keep agencies temporarily afloat with unobligated funds that remain valid when the current continuing resolution expires at midnight. Agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Communications Commission said they have sufficient carry-over funds to last about a week after a shutdown.

For more information, see Government Executive’s earlier coverage about who works and who doesn’t during the shutdown and how the White House approach to using budget transfer authority is risky.

Erich Wagner and Eric Katz contributed to this report. Sign up for GovExec newsletters and alerts and download our app to stay informed.

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