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What might happen if federal government shuts down again

Federal workers protested outside the State Department in 1996. Managers decided which "essential" employees could work and who was "nonessential" - about 260,000 in the District.
Federal workers protested outside the State Department in 1996. Managers decided which "essential" employees could work and who was "nonessential" - about 260,000 in the District. (AP)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2011; 11:32 PM

If President Obama and congressional Republicans do not reach an agreement on how to fund the final seven months of the fiscal year, some military veterans might not receive benefits checks and other Americans would be unable to apply for Social Security. The State Department might not issue new passports, unemployment statistics would not publish as scheduled, museums and national parks would close, and worse - piles of elephant manure might pile up in a National Zoo parking lot because workers can't ship it away for composting.

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Budget disagreements between Bill Clinton and Republicans prompted these incidents in 1995 and 1996, as federal agencies halted operations and stopped paying workers.

For more than 20 days, about 260,000 federal employees in the D.C. area stayed home, or reported for duty only to be sent packing hours later. Security guards roamed the halls forcing out workers who lingered, and some frustrated feds sought temporary jobs as bike messengers and servers at restaurants to pay holiday bills, according to Post reports from the time.

Agencies retroactively paid workers once the doors reopened, but many government contractors - paid separately by private employers - earned nothing during the shutdown. And congressional Democrats proposed last week that Obama and lawmakers also should not be paid during a shutdown.

Obama and congressional leaders must strike a deal by March 4 to keep the government running. Failure to pass a bill could cause an immediate stop to a wide range of federal services.

Congressional Republicans are hoping to cut billions of dollars in government spending to make good on pledges made during the midterm election campaign. Obama would veto plans that cut government spending too deeply, the White House said last week.

Numerous tea party groups have called on lawmakers to force a government shutdown, if necessary, but the GOP leadership has vowed not to go that far.

"We're not looking for a government shutdown. We want some real spending cuts," Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation."

Both Ryan, the Budget Committee chairman, and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), said they support passage of a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government funding. But "it should have some spending cuts," Graham said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Federal agencies are beginning to instruct senior officials to prepare for a possible closure, ordering the cancellation of vacations or other personal commitments, according to agency sources not authorized to speak on the record.

Jacob J. Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, disputed those reports. "We're planning on reaching the kind of agreements that make it unnecessary to put the American people through a government shutdown. I don't want to either intentionally or unintentionally send any signals that we're planning to the contrary," he said last week.

Obama also warned against suggestions of a shutdown. "This is not an abstraction," he said at his news conference last week. "People don't get their Social Security checks. They don't get their veterans payments. Basic functions shut down. And it - that, also, would have an adverse effect on our economic recovery."


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