After debt battle, federal employees head back to work

Obama signs bill to avoid default; hundreds of thousands of federal workers return to jobs following shutdown

National park workers remove a barricade at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington as it reopens to the public on Thursday.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Hundreds of thousands of federal workers who had been furloughed and left without paychecks for the month of October finally returned to work Thursday morning after Congress and the president came to an agreement on the terms to reopen the government and raise the debt limit.

Federal employees were some of the most visible victims of the budget impasse that shut down the government for the last two weeks. Meanwhile, their “essential” colleagues were doing the work of usually robust offices — also without collecting their salaries. The legislation signed by President Barack Obama in the early hours of Thursday morning guaranteed that all 2 million federal employees will receive back pay.

Eddie Etches, an employee and union representative at the Department of Housing and Urban Development who had been allowed into his office building as a volunteer, said the episode had been a stressful time for workers who had no idea when the shutdown would end.

"People are relieved right now," he said. "They’re going to make their November rent payment or mortgage payment. And a lot of the people we serve are going to be better off."

Etches added, however, that there is already worry about what will happen in January. The current funding bill expires Jan. 15.

"There’s a fear that this is going to happen again, that this is only temporary, and of course there’s the tremendous amount of work that's backed up," he said. "It's absolute lunacy."

Others, too, fretted about how long the truce would last.

"It's good to be back to work, making some money," said Jeremy Wright, a Transportation Security Administration contractor. But he knows more unpaid time off is possible: "They only pushed it back to January, so I'm not holding my breath."

The Obama administration, meanwhile, took pains to applaud federal workers for their dedication and to sympathize with their troubles.

“This has been a particularly challenging time for federal employees, and I want to thank our nation’s dedicated civil servants for their continued commitment to serving the American people,” Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, said in a memo instructing agencies to open their doors again on Thursday morning.

Governing by crisis

Click for news and analysis on the government shutdown

The return to work followed a hectic final day of shutdown Wednesday, during which lawmakers rushed to vote through a bill that would also allow the United States to raise the debt ceiling and avoid defaulting on its obligations.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, conceded defeat over the issue, as the House of Representatives fell in line with the Senate in voting for a bill to avert the default and end the 16-day government shutdown, largely on terms laid down by Obama. 

"We fought the good fight. We just didn't win," said Boehner earlier in the day before the House voted 285–144 for a bill — drafted by the Senate — that made no concessions to the demands on which House Republicans had gone to the mat, including the delay or scaling back of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.

The president signed the legislation at 12:30 a.m. Thursday.

Hours before the House vote, the Senate passed the same bill 81–18, after which Obama held a press conference praising the deal but also expressing hope that this political drama would not soon be repeated.

"We've got to get out of the habit of governing by crisis," the president said.

The new legislation will permit the Treasury to borrow normally through Feb. 7 or perhaps a month longer, and to fund the government through Jan. 15.

Obama said he hoped the budget deal showed a way forward on other seemingly intractable issues, such as the farm bill and immigration reform. "We could get all these things done, even this year," the president said, "if everybody comes together in a spirit of, how are we going to move this country forward and put the last three weeks behind us?"

"The compromise we reached will provide our economy with the stability it desperately needs," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., declaring that the nation "came to the brink of disaster" before sealing an agreement.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who negotiated the deal with Reid, emphasized that it preserved a round of spending cuts negotiated two years ago with Obama and Democrats. As a result, he said, "government spending has declined for two years in a row" for the first time since the Korean War. "And we're not going back on this agreement," he said.

No 'ransom'

After weeks of gridlock, the measure had support from the White House, most if not all Democrats in Congress, and many Republicans fearful of the economic impact of a default.

Republicans were demanding deficit reduction and spending cuts in exchange for reopening the government and extending its borrowing authority. But in the end, there was next to nothing in the agreement beyond authorization for the Treasury to resume borrowing and funding for the government to reopen.

Obama had insisted repeatedly that he would not pay "ransom" by yielding to Republicans' demands for significant changes to the health care overhaul in exchange for their compliance.

Earlier Wednesday, Boehner and the rest of the GOP leadership told their rank and file they would vote for the measure, and there was little or no doubt it would pass both houses and reach the White House in time for Obama's signature before the administration's deadline of 11:59 p.m. Oct. 17.

That was when Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said the government would reach the current $16.7 trillion debt limit and could no longer borrow to meet its obligations.

Naureen Khan contributed to this report, with wire services

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