Federal government shutdown has serious repercussions

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WASHINGTON -- If you're applying for new veterans' benefits, seeking a passport or planning a trip to a national park, you might be in for disappointment and delay.

As they wage a bitter partisan battle over health care and the federal spending, lawmakers in Washington are steering the country closer toward a shutdown. If they don't resolve their differences by midnight Monday, federal dollars will stop flowing to programs that are deemed nonessential and that are not self-funded.

The Senate on Friday approved legislation to prevent the shutdown with Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey voting yes and Republican Pat Toomey voting no. The Republican-controlled House is not expected to follow suit.

If the government shuts down, your mail will still arrive, Social Security checks will still be issued and hospitals will still operate. Law enforcement will still patrol the streets and air traffic controllers will still manage the skies. Tax collectors, members of Congress, food inspectors and bond issuers would still report to work, but federal workers -- including tens of thousands in Pennsylvania -- stand to be furloughed as part of the first government shutdown in 17 years.

That means delays in processing everything from passports to gun permits to applications for new veterans' disability benefits.

Employees required to work might not be paid until after the shutdown ends.

During brief furloughs in 1995 and 1996, furloughed employees eventually received back pay, but the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has indicated there is no guarantee that will happen this time.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., is working to ensure that paychecks won't be delayed for members of the military and defense contractors who work through the shutdown.

"Our troops and civilians who support them shouldn't suffer if Congress and the White House can't come to an agreement to keep our government running," said Mr. Toomey, who signed on as a co-sponsor to the Udall bill.

Undersecretary of Defense Robert F. Hale said troops are concerned.

"People are worrying right now about whether their paychecks are going to be delayed, rather than focusing fully on their mission," he said during a briefing Friday.

Mr. Hale warned that civilian furloughs are likely if Congress doesn't pass a continuing resolution to fund the government beyond Monday.

About half of the department's civilian workforce -- those who don't work in emergency or essential services -- would be placed on "non-duty, non-pay status," Mr. Hale said.

Military personnel would remain on duty, but travel and training would be disrupted, he said.

"We would also be required to do some bad things to our people," he said. "We couldn't immediately pay death gratuities to those who die on active duty during the lapse, we would have to close stateside commissaries, promotion boards and other similar important personnel activities would be disrupted," he said.

Even if a shutdown is averted, planning for it has already been disruptive, he said.

Other agencies and departments also are consumed with planning for a crisis they hope won't occur.

Funding for entitlement programs are not subject to the annual appropriations process so money is available, but on Friday it remained unclear whether federal employees will report to work to process the checks.

That's a problem that concerns Mr. Casey.

"No service member, no veteran, no military family, no vulnerable person should have their benefits either stopped or even delayed because some politician in Washington ... is engaged in a political stunt, which is what this is," he senator said Thursday in a conference call.

During the last shutdown, Social Security and Medicare benefits still went out on time, but veterans' benefits were delayed, he said.

The federal judiciary, meanwhile, has enough funds to operate for about 10 days and expects to remain open until at least Oct. 15, with all cases, hearings and arguments going forward as scheduled.

Executive branch departments on Friday were reviewing legal requirements and updating plans for executing a shutdown, even as agency managers were hoping that work would be in vain, said Emily Cain, spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget.

"It is our hope that this work will ultimately be unnecessary and that there will be no lapse in appropriations," Ms. Cain said.

Researchers who receive funding from the National Institutes of Health have the same hope.

"Life science research cannot be easily stopped and restarted like water from a faucet. Medical research requires carefully timed experiments with living organisms and material," United for Medical Research said in a written statement Friday.

The uncertainty threatens 432,000 jobs supported by NIH funding, according to the organization, which represents leading research institutions.

While the threat of a shutdown emanates from Republican opponents of the Affordable Care Act, that program is not expected to be affected. President Barack Obama has assured that enrollment in the new marketplace for individual coverage will open as scheduled on Tuesday.

Mr. Toomey is among those who want to repeal the president's signature domestic policy achievement, but this week he proposed a compromise that would shut it down and break the congressional logjam that on Friday seemed to be leading toward a shutdown.

One measure would have repealed a tax on medical devices that is hurting manufacturers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, but Democrats say revenue from that tax is necessary to fund other parts of the health reform act.

Mr. Casey has previously supported the tax repeal but now says Congress must first avert a shutdown and increase the debt limit, which is expected to be reached in about two weeks.

After that, he said, "we can have a debate until the cows come home on the budget, the medical device tax -- anything anybody wants."


Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, 1-703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets. Karen Langley contributed.


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