US President Barack Obama’s administration warned US federal agencies on Monday to prepare for a possible government shutdown that could hobble the US economy, as Congress wrangled over a fast-approaching budget deadline.
The current fiscal year ends on Monday and Congress remains bitterly split over spending, in particular over Obama’s landmark healthcare law.
The Republican-led House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would prevent a shutdown at the price of defunding what has become known as “Obamacare.”
The president has warned that this is a non-starter, and now the House and Senate are left with one week to thrash out a compromise.
Should they fail, several government agencies will close on Tuesday, placing hundreds of thousands of non-essential staff on unpaid leave.
Agencies are finalizing contingency plans.
The Pentagon said some civilian employees would be ordered to stay home, and Congress would have to ensure retroactive pay for civilians required to come to work.
“Military personnel would be paid, but maybe not on time,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer sought to lay the blame squarely on Republicans, some of whom he accused of caring “more about scoring political points on Obamacare than keeping the government open and our economy moving forward.
“This kind of up-to-the-final-hour brinksmanship is beyond irresponsible,” he said in an e-mail to Obama supporters.
The White House’s Office of Management and Budget recently issued a memo on how agencies should plan for a “lapse in appropriations.”
The US Department of State also cautioned employees. Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy fired off an e-mail warning that a lapse could mean “a number of employees may be temporarily furloughed.”
Under a similar threat in 2011, the administration said 800,000 of roughly 2.1 million federal employees and contractors would be affected.
The Democratic-led Senate is expected to amend the House’s stopgap bill, which funds government at current levels until Dec. 15, by removing the clause defunding Obamacare.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid set up a test vote for the bill today, insisting he would not let Republican “fanatics” hold the government “hostage to their demands.”
“We’re not going to bow to Tea Party anarchists who deny the mere fact that Obamacare is the law,” Reid said.
A handful of Senate Republicans led by upstart Senator Ted Cruz have pledged to try to block Reid, but by Monday their supporters were peeling away.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will not support Cruz’s blocking tactic nor will No. 2 Senate Republican John Cornyn, their offices said.
If Reid gets his way, and he is likely to, the chamber would send the stripped-down legislation back to the House. What Republican House leaders do with it is an open question.
Pfeiffer said he was looking to “reasonable congressional Republicans” to help avoid a government shutdown or worse, a default on US debt, with Congress needing to increase the nation’s legal borrowing limit in coming weeks or face default.
Americans are firmly opposed to shutting down government, polls show, even over an unpopular health law.
A CNBC poll showed 59 percent oppose the idea, while 19 percent would support shutting down government rather than funding Obamacare.