More than 800,000 federal employees impacted by the partial government shutdown are facing a key deadline this Friday, and it is one lawmakers are keenly aware of on both sides of the aisle.
More than 350,000 federal workers are currently on furlough, a status most of them have held for 18 days. An additional 500,000 are working through the shutdown. All of those employees received their normal paychecks in late December for work they did prior to the shutdown, but, absent a sudden breakthrough to reopen government, will not receive the checks that would otherwise hit their accounts on or around Jan. 11.
Democrats have sounded the alarm on the dire situation unpaid federal workers face for the duration of the shutdown, pushing for legislation to guarantee back pay for furloughed employees and amplifying stories of the struggles those working without pay would face. Republicans are now joining in that chorus, suggesting that feds actually missing a paycheck for the first time could alter the dynamic as negotiations continue.
“I think that’s gonna elevate the debate because thousands and thousands of employees are going to miss their paychecks,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I worked as chairman of the committee, I felt my obligation was to fund the government.” He added, “That’s still my goal, to fund the government.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has already cosponsored legislation to ensure all furloughed federal workers receive back pay.
“I’m very much worried about what many employees are going through,” Collins said, noting she “certainly hope[s]” the paycheck deadline would ramp up pressure for a deal. “It’s especially unfair for those who are being forced to work,” she added, recalling that she spoke with Transportation Security Administration employees in Portland, Maine, who were stressed about the prospect of missed pay. “This must be resolved this week.”
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Other senators were hopeful the pay deadline would spur action.
"It certainly adds pressure, there’s no doubt," said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who represents a disproportionate number of federal workers impacted by the shutdown. "They’re no different than any other American living paycheck-to-paycheck trying to pay the mortgage and put the food on the table and I think that’s a daunting challenge to think you’re not going to get paid. I’m hoping this will get some movement [to] resolve it quickly so that doesn’t happen."
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that oversees the federal workforce, noted that he has cosponsored legislation to ensure Coast Guard personnel—funded through the Homeland Security Department—continue to receive their normal pay through the shutdown. He is now looking to expand that.
“We’re looking at doing the same thing with other individuals, other employees who are involved with national security and making sure they do get paid,” Johnson said. He said he would wait to see how long the shutdown lasts before introducing the bill, but the simplest solution “would be for Democrats to just fund the wall.”
When asked if he thought the calculus being made by lawmakers would change when federal employees start missing their paychecks, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said, “I hope so.”
“Totally unnecessary,” Cornyn said. “It’s really a shame the collateral damage to people who didn’t contribute to the problem, but they’re the ones that are paying the price.”
Lawmakers are already butting up against the deadline if federal workers are to be paid without any delay. Agencies need time to reopen and certify time and attendance sheets before they can process payroll. Many employees at the Agriculture Department’s National Finance Center are currently furloughed, and would need to return to work and process paychecks.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said the the approaching deadline "should" lead to immediate action, though he was not convinced it would actually make a difference.
"This is no longer abstract," Schatz said. "This is no longer purely about politics. People are going to miss their mortgages and miss their rent."
Other lawmakers expressed remorse, without promising a change in strategy.
"I'm sorry," said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. "I'm really sorry for that." Asked if it might spur action, Kennedy said he had to get to a vote.
Jan. 11 also was the day the federal judiciary estimated courts would run out of operating funds, but officials revised that estimate this week and pushed the deadline to Jan. 18. Each court, on that date, would make its own determinations on “the staff necessary to support its mission-critical work.” That is set to include resolution of cases, but Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, still expressed concern.
“It’s going to stop equal justice for all,” Grassley said.
This story has been updated with comment from additional lawmakers.