Shutdown Over, Government Slowly Gets Back to Normal

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WASHINGTON -- The United States government sputtered back to life Thursday morning after President Obama and Congress ended a 16-day shutdown, clearing the way for federal agencies to again deliver services, reopen public facilities and welcome hundreds of thousands of furloughed employees returning to work.

The political standoff in the nation's capital ended just minutes before a midnight deadline when the government's ability to borrow money would have expired. Republicans conceded defeat on Wednesday by agreeing to finance the operations of government until Jan. 15 and raise the nation's debt limit through the middle of February. The Senate passed the legislation first, and the House followed around 10:15 p.m.

The agreement paves the way for another series of budget negotiations in the weeks ahead, even as conservative Republicans in the House and Senate vowed to renew their fight for cuts in spending and changes to the Affordable Care Act.

Just hours after Mr. Obama signed the temporary spending measure into law around 12:30 a.m., agencies in Washington and across the country prepared to reopen offices, public parks, research projects and community programs that have been mothballed for more than two weeks. The government's top personnel officer announced that officials should restart normal functions "in a prompt and orderly manner."

In Washington, the city's subway trains were once again packed with federal workers streaming in from the suburbs, government IDs dangling from lanyards around their necks. At the Lincoln Memorial, tourists waited nearby as a park ranger cut down the signs announcing that the memorial was closed.

Robert Lagana said Thursday morning he was eager to get back to his job at the International Trade Commission.

"It beats climbing the walls, wondering where your next paycheck is going to be and how you're going to make your bills," Mr. Lagana said as he made his way to his office near L'Enfant Plaza.

But he also expressed frustration with lawmakers who held up the budget over the new health care law. "They really need to come up with a law where this never happens again," he said, adding later, "You just feel like you don't have a voice."

At the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. showed up to see workers who had been furloughed.

"I brought some muffins!" Mr. Biden said as he arrived at the security desk. When he was asked about the shutdown, he said: "I'm happy it's ended. It was unnecessary to begin with. I'm happy it's ended."

He greeted returning workers with handshakes and hugs.

The Smithsonian Institution announced via Twitter that its museums would reopen to the public on Thursday. The National Zoo's popular "Panda Cam" was once again broadcasting live streams of the zoo's newest panda cub by late Thursday morning, and officials said that the zoo would be open to visitors on Friday.

But how quickly other parts of the government will resume normal operations was not immediately clear.

Some federal agencies began offering employees guidance for their return to work. A memorandum from officials at the Department of the Interior encouraged returning workers to check their e-mail and voicemail, fill out their timecards and to "check on any refrigerators and throw out any perished food."

The Interior memo hinted at how long it will take for the government to be fully functioning. It said snack bars at the main Interior building would be open on Thursday, but the cafeteria would be closed. Shuttles between Interior buildings in the capital will not be operating, the memorandum said.

Across the country, federal workers returned to work, and visitors returned to national historic sites.

In New York City, office workers poured in and out of the mammoth building at 26 Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan on Thursday morning; some had been essential staff who worked through the shutdown, while others were eager to get back to the job – and start being paid again.

"Put yourself in that situation," said Regina Napoli, 60, a legal administrator for the Social Security Administration who lives on Long Island. "The bills pile up."

Her colleague, Selma Chan, 64, agreed. "We were feeling the strain financially and physically," said Ms. Chan, whose younger daughter is a student at New York University. "We didn't know what to do."

Ms. Chan said she had mostly stayed at home in Flushing, Queens, and had contemplated borrowing money from her elderly mother to make ends meet. But on Thursday, she was beaming as she held up a brown paper bag with a latte and a grilled cheese sandwich – an indulgence she said was not possible the day before.

Across the street at the African Burial Ground National Monument, a tiny federal park, French middle school students huddled for a talk by a Long Island University professor. (The smallest national park in New York City, a three-story Manhattan brownstone housing the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Historic Site, also reopened on Thursday.)

The burial ground site, which draws casual office workers and daily visitors who come to pray, had reopened an hour before. And within minutes, the park ranger in charge said, a group from West Africa arrived, including dignitaries from Benin.

Tourists in Boston spilled into the Charlestown Navy Yard, the national historic park that contains the U.S.S. Constitution, the world's oldest commissioned warship afloat. Some arrived on foot and others eagerly disembarked from trolleys that, during the shutdown, brought visitors past the park but could not take them inside.

"I was hoping it would be open; we didn't know whether it would be in time," said Dorothy Bank, a retired kindergarten teacher from North Carolina who was just about to leave Boston for a foliage tour in Northern New England.

Sean Hennessey, a spokesperson for the National Parks Service, said 85 furloughed employees were back to work in Boston on Thursday. He estimated the city's national historical sites,which include the Navy Yard, the Bunker Hill Monument and the downtown Faneuil Hall visitor center, lost about 55,000 visitors because of the shutdown. The U.S.S. Constitution Museum alone, he said, lost an estimated $7,000 per day.

For much of the week in Oak Ridge, Tenn., the restaurant owner Waldek Kaczocha saw Thursday as a day of dual threats: the breach of the debt ceiling and, perhaps more critically in this East Tennessee city, the start of furloughs for about 3,600 employees at the Y-12 National Security Complex.

For weeks, Y-12, which helps to manage and maintain the nation's nuclear arsenal, had remained open as its private operator used carryover funds. But as those dollars dwindled, officials warned that Oct. 17 – more than two weeks into the broader government shutdown – would be the first forced day off for thousands of employees.

"I was really, really scared. If they don't have their jobs, I have no customers," said Mr. Kaczocha, who said federal employees and contractors make up 80 percent of his restaurant's customers. "I was really worried about the whole mess."

To prepare for a drop in business and grow his contingency fund, he canceled his plans for a springtime family vacation.

Across Jackson Square in Oak Ridge, Dean Russell said he had no plans to do away with the sign he posted at the entrance of his restaurant on Wednesday: "Members of Congress not welcome here."

Even in deeply conservative Tennessee, Mr. Russell said his edict applied to members from both parties, who are now barred from the restaurant's selection of apple, chocolate and coconut fried pies.

And he said that even when he removes the display, he will keep it close at hand. "I'm sure the anger will pass, and I'll take it down," Mr. Russell said. "But we'll keep the sign because I'm sure they'll do something again."

Government workers in Chicago streamed into the John C. Kluczynski Federal Building Thursday morning. Many, clutching takeout coffee, said they expected a daunting backlog of work.

One employee of the labor department, who would give only her first name, Lyn, because her employer would disapprove of her talking about the shutdown, said she was relieved to be back. "I live paycheck to paycheck," she said, adding that she also supports her 84-year-old mother. "It was stressful."

She now fears it could take weeks for back pay to get approved. "We didn't ask for this," she said. "We're just the little guys. At least things are getting back to normal."

But not all was back to normal. People who had been waiting to visit the Internal Revenue Service office since the shutdown began were still turned away by security. "If you aren't making a payment, they won't see you," said an officer in the lobby, who suggested they try again tomorrow.

Cynthia Ellis, a South Side resident, needed to get federal tax documents for a state program that helps pay her mortgage. "I heard the news say all government employees are back to work," she said, clearly frustrated. "This is bad. This is really bad."

Ms. Ellis said the documents needed to be turned in by Friday or she could lose the financial aid. "It's already due," she said about her house payments. "I'm already behind."

Across the globe, investors shrugged at the decision by United States politicians to end the shutdown. European stocks dipped on Thursday as investors appeared more interested in other corporate news than the political drama playing out in Washington.

The euro zone's blue-chip Euro Stoxx 50 index was down 0.4 percent in afternoon trading, retreating from a 2-1/2 year high hit on Wednesday. Futures trading on the Dow Jones industrial average indicated a mild pullback after a 1.4 percent gain on Wednesday.

"People are 'selling the news,'" said David Thebault, head of quantitative sales trading at Global Equities. "The agreement was priced in stocks, and now that it's behind us and political risk has been removed, investors are offloading portfolio protection."

Financial officials in the United States expressed deep skepticism about the likelihood that the parties in Washington would reach a better outcome as they seek a broader budget deal by the end of the year.

Richard Fisher, the president of the Dallas Federal Reserve, told the Reuters news agency that the country would not get unemployment under control unless lawmakers and the president "get their act together." A longtime critic of the Fed's efforts to buy bonds to stimulate the economy, Mr. Fisher said that a long-term solution was unclear.

"Kicking the can down the road for a few months will not solve the pathology of fiscal misfeasance that undermines our economy and threatens our future," Mr. Fisher said, adding that the Fed's stimulus cannot "offset the rot that is destroying our fiscal house and the blight it spreads over our economy."

In Washington, politicians immediately began the post-shutdown posturing as they braced for another confrontation over spending, taxes and health care in the budget negotiations that are set to begin in the days and weeks ahead.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, urged his party colleagues to make sure that those talks did not lead to another high-stakes battle that put the government at risk again.

"We've got to assure the American people that we are not going to do this again," Mr. McCain said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Thursday. He said Republicans should "focus on the provisions of Obamacare that are not acceptable" and make sure they get "a positive agenda for the party so we can be for things rather than against things, for opening things rather than closing them."

Tea Party conservatives insisted that the fight that led to the shutdown was not a wasted effort, even though they were not able to defund or delay the president's health care law.

"We fought for fairness," said Representative Mick Mulvaney, Republican of South Carolina, on CNN's "New Day" program. "If you stand up for what you believe in, I think you will always find yourself on the right side of things."

"Sometimes," he added, "this is the only way."

Reporting was contributed  by Jess Bidgood from Boston; Alan Blinder from Oak Ridge, Tenn.; J. David Goodman from New York; Emmarie Huetteman from Washington; and Steven Yaccino from Chicago.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 17, 2013 2:01 PM


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