House and Senate bills would pay federal workers for shutdown furloughs

House and Senate lawmakers this week proposed legislation to retroactively pay the roughly 800,000 federal workers who are furloughed because of the partial government shutdown that started Tuesday.

The House back-pay measure could be up for a floor vote as early as Saturday, according to Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who introduced the bill on Tuesday along with sponsor Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.). As of Thursday, 120 lawmakers, including 18 Republicans, had added their names to the measure.

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“Everyone I’ve talked to about this bill seems to be for it,” Wolf said Thursday of his colleagues in the House.

All of the Republicans who co-sponsored the House measure are from Virginia, a state with a high concentration of federal workers. They include Wolf and Reps. Rob Wittman, Scott Rigell and Randy Forbes.

On the Senate side, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has proposed nearly identical back-pay legislation, with 15 Democrats, including Sens. Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Mark Warner (Va.) and Tim Kaine (Va.), co-sponsoring the bill.

“Hardworking federal employees did not cause our fiscal crises, nor did they contribute to the legislative gridlock,” Cardin said in a statement. “It is our responsibility to assure these public servants, mostly middle class and struggling to get by like so many other Americans, will be made whole again when it finally ends.”

No Republicans had co-sponsored the Senate measure as of Thursday.

Labor groups have commended the two back-pay measures. National Treasury Employees Union president Colleen M. Kelley said in a letter to the sponsors that federal workers are “unsure when they might be able to return to their federal offices, unsure whether or not they will be able to make their next rent or mortgage payment and frustrated and scared about their future.”

Several other GOP lawmakers this week expressed reservations about the back pay because of the national debt.

“I think it’s way too early to even consider that, but again, we’re $7 trillion more in the hole now than we were [during the shutdowns in fiscal 1996],” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) told the Huffington Post on Wednesday. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) voiced similar concerns, according to the report.

Neither of the lawmakers’ offices responded to requests for comment on Thursday.

Congress has granted back-pay to furloughed federal workers after each of the past 16 shutdowns that have taken place since 1976.

Congress found itself at an impasse this week as the government’s previous temporary budget was about to expire.

Democrats refused to consider the last spending bills that House Republicans put forward because the legislation would have delayed the start of certain key provisions in the new health-care law, commonly known as Obamacare.

Wolf supported the GOP measures but said Thursday that he is pressing for a short-term budget without health-care amendments now that the shutdown has taken effect. He said he has no regrets about backing the proposed Obamacare delays.

Wolf furloughed all but three members of his staff this week, even though members of Congress can exempt their employees from time off by designating them as “essential” workers who must remain on the job during shutdowns.

“Everybody in my office is essential, but I felt that if that was what was being done by other agencies, we should follow it too,” he said. “It’s a very difficult thing.”

On Monday, President Obama signed a bill guaranteeing that members of the military and some of the civilian workers who support them would be paid during the shutdown.

 
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