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Government doors closed, but workers may get paid

| Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 11:30 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Their government has failed to keep the doors open and has told federal workers to stay off the job as the political parties fight over spending and health care in austere times.

Now Congress and President Barack Obama are sending this message to the 800,000 sidelined government employees: We don't know when the impasses will end but you will get reimbursed for lost pay once the government reopens.

With the partial shutdown entering its fifth day, the GOP-run House passed a bill Saturday that would make sure the furloughed workers get paid for not working. The White House backs the bill and the Senate was expected to OK it, too, but the timing was unclear.

The 407-0 vote in the House was uniquely bipartisan, even as lawmakers continued their partisan rhetoric.

“This is not their fault, and they should not suffer as a result,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said of federal workers. “This bill is the least we should do. Our hard-working public servants should not become collateral damage in the political games and ideological wars that Republicans are waging.”

Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, said federal workers shouldn't have to worry about paying their bills while Congress and the White House fight over funding the government.

“They have child care expenses, house payments to make, kids that are in college, and while the president refuses to negotiate, while he's playing politics, they shouldn't worry about whether or not they can make ends meet,” Turner said.

But even as Congress and the White House rallied around the bill, one outside group said it “demonstrates the stupidity of the shutdown.”

Making the shutdown less painful for 800,000 federal employees will encourage Congress and the White House to extend it even longer, driving up the cost, said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Ellis said “essential” federal workers who stayed on the job “will feel like suckers because they've been working while the others essentially are getting paid vacations.”

Also Saturday, the Pentagon said it was ordering most of its approximately 400,000 furloughed civilian employees back to work.

The decision by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is based on a Pentagon legal interpretation of a law called the Pay Our Military Act, which Congress passed and Obama signed shortly before the shutdown began.

The Pentagon did not immediately say exactly how many workers will return to work. The Defense Department said “most” were being brought back.

The law ensured that members of the military, who have remained at work throughout the shutdown, would be paid on time. It also left room for the Pentagon to keep on the job those civilians who provide support to the military.

The White House has opposed other piecemeal efforts by House Republicans to restore money to some functions of government during the partial shutdown. White House officials have said the House should reopen the entire government and not pick agencies and programs over others.

In the 1995-96 government shutdowns, furloughed workers were retroactively given full pay.

Despite the White House's declared appreciation of the essential role of federal workers, there appeared no sign of a breakthrough in getting them back to work.

Lawmakers keep replaying the same script on Capitol Hill: House Republicans pass piecemeal bills to reopen popular and politically sensitive programs — on Friday, disaster relief and food aid for the poor — while Democrats insist that the House vote on a straightforward Senate-passed measure to reopen all of government.

“But the far right of the Republican Party won't let Speaker John Boehner give that bill a yes-or-no vote,” Obama said in his Saturday radio and Internet address. “Take that vote. Stop this farce. End this shutdown now.”

There seemed little chance of that.

For one thing, flinching by either side on the shutdown might be seen as weakening one's hand in an even more important fight looming just over the horizon as the combatants in Washington increasingly shifted their focus to a midmonth deadline for averting a first-ever default.

“This isn't some damn game,” Boehner, R-Ohio, said as the White House and Democrats held to their position of agreeing to negotiate only after the government is reopened and the $16.7 trillion debt limit raised.

Republicans pointed to a quote in The Wall Street Journal from an anonymous White House official that “we are winning ... It doesn't really matter to us” how long the shutdown lasts.

At issue in the shutdown is a temporary funding measure to keep the government fully open through mid-November or mid-December.

More than 100 stopgap continuing resolutions have passed without much difficulty since the last shutdown in 1996. But tea party Republicans, their urgency intensified by the rollout of health insurance marketplaces this month, are demanding concessions in Obama's health care law as their price for the funding legislation, sparking the shutdown impasse with Democrats.

Obama has said he won't negotiate on the temporary spending bill or upcoming debt limit measure, arguing they should be sent to him free of GOP add-ons. Congress, whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans, routinely sent Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, “clean” stopgap spending bills and debt-limit increases.

House Republicans appeared to be shifting their demands, de-emphasizing their previous insistence on defunding the health care overhaul in exchange for re-opening the government. Instead, they ramped up calls for cuts in federal benefit programs and future deficits, items that Boehner has said repeatedly will be part of any talks on debt limit legislation.

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