WASHINGTON - The U.S. government notified federal workers on Thursday that a shutdown appears imminent, as a Republican-led standoff on Capitol Hill forced the Biden administration to begin the formal, methodical process of preparing much of Washington to come to a halt.
The new warnings underscored the growing likelihood that millions of employees and military service members may stop receiving pay in just three days, even as talks commenced on Capitol Hill in pursuit of a long-elusive, last-minute deal that would extend federal funding beyond Sept. 30.
Across the government, federal officials dusted off the intricate blueprints that help unwind and pare down the sprawling bureaucracy to only its most vital functions. They braced for disruptions that are likely to be significant, especially if the stalemate persists for weeks, potentially dragging down the fragile U.S. economy while complicating many of the services on which millions of Americans and businesses rely.
Some federal programs, including Social Security and mail delivery, would be unaffected because they are funded outside of the annual appropriations process on Capitol Hill. But many other government operations would be rendered inaccessible if funds expire as soon as this weekend — potentially resulting in closed parks and passport offices, and eventually, more worrisome interruptions affecting federal housing, food and health aid for the poor.
Caught in the middle are the nation’s roughly 2 million federal workers and its approximately 1.3 million active-duty troops. On Thursday morning, many received the first, formal word of a possible funding lapse, which would cut off their pay for as long as Congress fails to come to an agreement — though they would receive backpay once any shutdown ends.
Some of these civilian employees will be furloughed, sent home without a clear date of return, and others will be forced to report to work anyway. These workers serve urgent functions, addressing needs related to public safety and national security — a category that includes bag-inspection agents at airports, federal disaster aid workers and more than 19,000 Border Patrol officials, even as some Republicans call for tougher anti-immigration policies.
Members of the military are similarly expected to helm their posts in a shutdown without pay, creating the prospect of a “worst-case scenario” for the Defense Department, said Sabrina Singh, the deputy press secretary for the Pentagon. For each day Congress fails to act, she said the “bills are going to mount up” for troops who still must purchase groceries, cover rent and address other financial needs, adding: “We really shouldn’t be in this position.”
Michael Linden, a former top official at the White House Office of Management and Budget, said the notices reflected a hard political reality: Unlike past spending battles that yielded an 11th-hour deal, “the chances of a shutdown are much higher.”
“If you’re 48 hours out from a potential shutdown, but it’s very clear there’s a [deal] on its path, then you might not do that,” he said. “But if there isn’t, you are going to have to tell agencies to tell their teams, so people can start to plan.”
On Capitol Hill, a swift resolution this week remained exceedingly unlikely, even as the Senate prepared to approve a bipartisan bill that would sustain federal spending into November. It remained unclear if the measure would even see a vote in the House, where far-right Republicans — with the backing of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) - have held firm in rejecting any short-term funding deal that doesn’t satisfy their conservative policy demands.
In an early, encouraging sign, however, some Senate Democrats and Republicans on Thursday discussed a potential compromise: a funding stopgap, known as a continuing resolution, that includes a new burst of money to improve enforcement at the U.S.-Mexican border. McCarthy, meanwhile, told Republicans earlier in the day that he still hopes to hold a Friday vote on an alternative short-term funding bill, one that slashes government spending in ways that Biden and other Democrats see as unacceptable.
In the meantime, the Biden administration has plodded toward a shutdown, instructing agencies to update their plans for how they would proceed without funding. One by one, these offices into Thursday warned anew about the fast approaching consequences, as they are forced to halt some food and water inspections; slash nutrition aid to millions of poor families; shut down research into cancer and other emerging health issues; and delay the provision of money to Florida, Puerto Rico and other communities still reeling from major natural disasters.
Some agencies signaled that they could also face severe operational challenges, left to operate in a shutdown with only a fraction of their usual staff. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, told workers Thursday that it has enough funding to stay open for about a week into a shutdown. But the agency has signaled a long-term lapse could be problematic, forcing it to furlough 82 percent of its workforce.
At the IRS, meanwhile, roughly two-thirds of the workforce is expected to be sent home, leaving phone lines unanswered and hundreds of taxpayer assistance centers nationwide to go dark, the agency announced Thursday.
While military personnel would continue reporting in a shutdown, many of their civilian counterparts are expected to be furloughed, Singh told reporters at the Pentagon’s daily press briefing. Affected workers are likely to include English-language instructors at the Defense Department, whose services are necessary for the military to continue its program to train Ukrainian soldiers to fly F-16 jets.
“Absolutely, there could be impacts,” Singh said.
The disruptions are expected to widen and worsen over time, even cutting potentially into programs that rely on leftover federal funding to continue operating. That includes federal aid initiatives that subsidize child care, college financial aid and access to healthy food, which would start to exhaust their dwindling reserves, leaving lower-income Americans in a bind.
Adding to the headaches, lawmakers on Thursday appeared on the verge of missing a second deadline: a need to renew the law that underpins the Federal Aviation Administration before Sept. 30. That mishap, on top of a lapse of funding, threatened to tax the airplane inspectors, air traffic controllers and safety workers who staff the nation’s air travel system, precisely at a time when Americans already are facing high ticket costs and lengthy airport delays.
“I want you to imagine the pressure that a controller is already under every time they take their position at work,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Wednesday. “And then imagine the added stress of coming to that job from a household with a family that can no longer count on that paycheck.”
Some of those workers simply walked off the job during the last major shutdown, a 34-day interruption starting in 2018 under President Donald Trump. The closure, which only involved some federal agencies, affected more than 800,000 workers, roughly 38 percent of whom were furloughed then, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Any new potential shutdown threatens once again to create immense hardship for these employees, who stand to lose pay at a moment when the prices of rent, groceries and other goods remain elevated.
Exactly how long they are unpaid, and how many checks they may miss, depends on their exact two-week pay cycle and the duration of any lapse in federal funding. The financial trouble could be more pronounced for contractors that serve Washington, who are not guaranteed pay in the event of a shutdown.
But the promise of a future reimbursement may offer little comfort to workers facing the “uncertainty of, ‘Will I ever make up for this lost paycheck?’” said Democratic Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, whose Virginia district includes a substantial number of government employees.
“The natural reaction for most people is to pull back,” he said, as these families look to conserve money. “You have this huge ripple effect from a shutdown that affects the economy writ large.”
- - -
Ian Duncan and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.