The House on Saturday passed a bill that would grant back-pay to furloughed federal employees.
Federal workers demonstrate against the government shutdown in front of the US Capitol in Washington on October 4, 2013. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
UPDATED, 3:48 p.m.
Furloughed government employees got a rare piece of good news on Saturday, when the House voted to guarantee that they would receive backpay for time spent out of work due to the shutdown. Later that same day, the Defense Department announced that it would be calling back the majority of its furloughed civilian workforce.
House lawmakers showed up to work for the second weekend in a row as the U.S. reached day five of government shutdown. The House passed a measure Saturday morning that would provide back-pay for furloughed employees once the shutdown ends. The bill passed in a 407-0 vote, and has been backed by the White House. A similar bill, sponsored by Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, awaits approval in the Senate, but it is unclear when that chamber will take it up.
Speaking from the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that it was “cruel” to promise furloughed workers backpay while refusing to let them return to work.
“These are ordinary Americans who haven’t been treated very well the last few years by the Republicans anyway,” he said. “They treat federal employees like they are a lower class of worker than other people.”
More than 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed since the shutdown began on Tuesday after House Republicans refused to keep the government open unless Congress defunds President Obama’s healthcare law. However, the Defense Department announced on Saturday that they would soon recall more than 300,000 civilian employees, drastically reducing the number of workers still out on furlough. The department had originally furloughed about 400,000 workers, roughly half of all government furloughs.
“We have tried to exempt as many DoD civilian personnel as possible from furloughs. We will continue to try to bring all civilian employees back to work as soon as possible,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a statement. “Ultimately, the surest way to end these damaging and irresponsible furloughs, and to enable us to fulfill our mission as a Department, is for Congress to pass a budget and restore funds for the entire federal government.”
The Republican strategy since the government slogged to a halt has been to pass “piecemeal” bills, refunding whatever agencies and services they would like to see running again, while keeping the rest of the federal government closed.
Few of these bills will have any tangible, real-world effect. The Democrat-controlled Senate will not pass any of these piecemeal bills, and even if they did, the White House has made clear that President Obama would veto them.
Rebuffing calls by Republicans to gradually fund government operations item by item, President Obama challenged House leaders to hold a vote on a clean spending bill that would end the shutdown entirely.
“We can vote to open the government today,” he told the Associated Press in an interview on Friday. “We know that there are enough members in the House of Representatives — Democrats and Republicans — who are prepared to vote to reopen the government today. The only thing that is keeping that from happening is Speaker Boehner has made a decision that he is going to hold out to see if he can get additional concessions from us.”
As the president indicated, at least 20 Republicans have said they would vote to reopen the government without extracting concessions from the White House. But they’ve shown little willingness to join Democratic efforts to force a vote on a clean CR, preferring instead to let House leaders work out their strategy.
The piecemeal bills already passed by the House have dealt with some of the most visible consequences of the shutdown.
When veterans were initially turned away from visiting the WWII Memorial in Washington, House Republicans made a commotion over the closures–some even blamed the Park Service. The House then passed the Open Our National Parks and Museum Act to open national parks, museums and national monuments. A bill restoring funding to the National Institutes on Health (NIH) was passed shortly after reports first came out that the agency’s Clinic Center had been forced to turn away new patients, including some children with cancer.
Other recently passed House bills would refund the municipal government of Washington, D.C., FEMA, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). The bills expected to be considered over the next few days include legislation refunding the FDA, the National Weather Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Additionally, House Republicans have proposed a bill to restore funding to the federally funded low-income childcare program called Head Start. On Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that roughly 50 Head Start sites across the country had been forced to close as a result of the shutdown, leaving about 3,200 preschool-aged children without professional childcare. President Obama highlighted the shutdown’s effect on Head Start during his weekly Saturday address.
Republicans “don’t get to kick a child out of Head Start if I don’t agree to take her parents’ health insurance away,” he said, reiterating his opposition to any shutdown resolution which would delay or eliminate Obamacare.