Federal Times Blogs

Shutdown Watch-Day 14: Headed down to the wire (again)

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Good Morning! Today is a federal holiday, but that doesn’t mean much to hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal employees as the partial government shutdown enters its third week. According to a message from one agency leader, the Office of Personnel Management has said this is an unpaid furlough day both for non-excepted and excepted employees unless they are required to report to “perform excepted functions.”

And about ending that shutdown . . . Sunday produced lots of saber-rattling and zero tangible evidence that a deal is in sight, either on reopening the government or raising the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling, with just three days now remaining before the Obama administration says it will run out of emergency borrowing authority.

Nonetheless, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev,. sounded an upbeat note, saying that he had  a “productive conversation” with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “Our discussions were substantive, and we will continue those discussions,” Reid said on the Senate floor, according to the Congressional Record. “I am optimistic about the prospects for a positive conclusion to the issues before this country today.”

The stock market seems a bit dubious, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average and other major indices all initially down this morning.

But if this fight originated in Republicans’ insistence on defunding implementation of the Affordable Care Act, (aka Obamacare), the battlefield has now expanded to encompass Democrats’ demands to soften or eliminate this fiscal year’s looming sequester-related budget cuts. Absent any congressional action to rewrite the 2011 Budget Control Act, the next round of reductions is likely to hit in January. McConnell is open to including changes in a debt ceiling increase, as long as the end result doesn’t raise overall spending levels and doesn’t involve a tax increase, according to an aide.  But opening a new front in the conflict may make it that much harder to resolve, particularly with time growing short before a possible debt default.

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday” yesterday, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., warned that Democrats are “on the verge of being one tick too cute.” Just as the Republican-controlled House overreached in seeking to undo the health care law, Democrats are overreaching “as they see the House possibly in disarray,” Corker said.

The upshot (hold your breath): A final deal may involve a short-term continuing resolution to reopen the government and buy time for talks on a broader budget agreement. According to The Wall Street Journal , Reid sounded out McConnell on a CR that would run through mid-December at current spending levels, accompanied by an approximately six-month debt limit increase. In our deadline-driven political system, the expectation is that all sides will come together in time to stave off catastrophe (think August 2011). But assuming that the Senate can pass the usual stop-gap bill, the measure still has to get through the House, long-time budget watcher Stan Collender noted today in a Tweet. “No guarantee at all House GOP will follow even if [the Senate[ vote is 100-0,” Collender wrote.

In other news:

The Federal Housing Administration is calling on mortgage lenders to be sensitive to financial hardships facing federal employees and contractors subject to furloughs, layoffs or lost income stemming from the shutdown. That advisory comes as many, if not most, feds receive smaller than usual paychecks because of the shutdown.

The National Association of State Budget Officers (in case you thought the spending stalemate only affects feds) puts out a brief on what the shutdown means for state governments.

The American Federation of Government Employees warns that this week will be a “critical turning point” for many of its members as their paychecks run out.

Any major developments we’ve missed, particularly in regard to agency news? Let us know with an email to shutdownstories@federaltimes.com



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House members press for Senate action on back-pay bill

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Two Virginia lawmakers are seeking quick Senate action on legislation that would assure back pay to furloughed federal employees once the partial government shutdown ends. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., passed the House last Saturday 407-0, but has stalled in the Senate, where Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has voiced reservations about a fast-track vote.

In a Friday letter, Moran and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., the bill’s lead Republican co-sponsor, urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to work with their “respective caucuses to overcome any objections to advance this important legislation.”


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Senate leader: Seniors “love to get” junk mail

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Politicians are fond of invoking the elderly on behalf of a favored cause, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., took that gambit to a new level yesterday when discussing S. 1789, a bill intended to keep the U.S. Postal Service afloat. Who knew that the only thing connecting Gramps to the rest of us were auto insurance come-ons and grocery store fliers? Here, straight from a transcript in the Congressional Record, is Reid’s take on one reason for saving the Postal Service.

For seniors who cannot leave their
homes, mail carriers deliver lifesaving
medications—an important link to the
outside world. Elderly Americans rely
on the U.S. Postal Service.
I will go home tonight to my home
here in Washington, and there will be
some mail there. A lot of it is what
some people refer to as junk mail, but
for the people who are sending that
mail, it is very important.
And talking about seniors, seniors
love to get junk mail. It is sometimes
their only way of communicating or
feeling they are part of the real world.
Elderly Americans, more than any
other group of people in America, rely
on the U.S. Postal Service.”

Reid, by the way, is 71. FedLine’s not sure what to make of that.


Senate could take up postal bill next week

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The wind-up has taken a while, but the full Senate might–just might–pitch into a major debate on postal issues next week.

Earlier today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., introduced a motion that would allow senators to take up the bill, known as the 21st Century Postal Service Act, as early as Monday. Although everything in the Senate (and we mean everything) is subject to change, Reid presumably wouldn’t have proceeded without some chance of having the votes to kick off debate.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., isn’t commenting. Lawmakers could also have to placate Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who announced today that she’ll seek to block consideration of the bill over concerns about how the U.S. Postal Service is handling the proposed closure of a mail processing plant in her state.

For FedLine readers who need a refresher, the measure was introduced last fall by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., Susan Collins, R-Maine, Tom Carper, D-Del., and Scott Brown, R-Mass.  A major draw is the provision that would permit the Postal Service to spend part of a refund on excess contributions into the Federal Employees Retirement System on incentives to encourage up to 100,000 workers to retire or quit. The bill would also give the financially strapped mail carrier a big break on the current requirement to pay about $5.5 billion per year into a retiree health care fund.

Politically speaking, perhaps, so far, so good. The Postal Service can’t make the retiree health fund payments anyway and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle like the idea of using early retirements or buyouts to encourage folks to leave on their own.

But the bill contains some other provisions likely to spur—to put it nicely—spirited discussion. Under the legislation, for example, the Postal Service could end most Saturday delivery in two years if it proves to independent reviewers that there is no other way to achieve “sustainability.” Postal unions are opposed and—along with other federal labor groups—also object to proposed changes to the federal workers’ compensation system.

Last month, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and 26 Democratic senators urged Lieberman and the other sponsors to agree to a four-year ban on any shift to five-day delivery. They’re also seeking to stymie two other big USPS downsizing initiatives that are supposed to save billions of dollars: A change in first-class delivery standards that’s tied to the closing or consolidation of 223 mail processing plants and a round of post office closings that would shutter a lot of rural P.O.’s

It’s not clear exactly how Lieberman and company will proceed. But in a statement today, Sanders said he hopes for an agreement “that will go a long way toward saving jobs at the Postal Service, saving post offices and maintaining strong mail-delivery standards.”

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Senators press for “improvements” to postal bill

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The Senate has yet to begin a formal debate over a proposed postal overhaul, but the jawboning is already well under way.

The latest development: 27 senators led by Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., wrote the bill’s sponsors today urging them to consider some “significant improvements.”  Such as  protection for rural post offices; barring the U.S. Postal Service from a change in delivery service standards that could lead to the closing of up to 252 mail processing plants; and requiring the continuation of six-day-a-week mail delivery for at least another four years. They also call for creation of a blue-ribbon commission that would have six months to devise a new business model for the Postal Service “to achieve long-term fiscal sustainability.”

Apart from Sanders, the signers are all Democrats. Still to be seen is whether the bill’s sponsors, including Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and the committee’s top Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, will consider any of their ideas. But the letter offers telling evidence for why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has yet to bring the bill up for debate weeks after it was placed on the Senate calendar.

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Senate to debate cyber legislation in 2012

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Senate Majority Leader harry Reid (Photo Credit: Sen. Reid's office)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., expects the Senate to vote on cybersecurity legislation during its first work period of 2012.

In a Nov. 16 letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Reid said that bipartisan committees have been negotiating potential language in a cyber bill for the past six months, but those efforts haven’t produced results.

Reid said if the working groups cannot agree on bipartisan legislation by early next year, he will welcome legislation produced “elsewhere” to be debated on the Senate floor. For now, the 2012 legislative session is scheduled to begin Jan. 23.

Could that bill include recommendations from the House Republican Cybersecurity Task Force? In his letter, Reid highlighted efforts by the task force as being consistent with efforts in the Senate.


Funding extension bill for FAA and highways now on deck

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Some welcome news for Federal Aviation Administration employees: A soon-to-be-introduced bill would extend funding  authorization for various FAA programs through the end of January. It would be the latest in the series of stopgap extensions, the most recent of which expires this coming Friday, Sept. 16.

The bill, posted Friday night on the House Rules Committee’s website, is sponsored by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla. It can’t actually be introduced before Monday, a Mica spokesman said in an email.

Whatever happens after that, FAA employees can only hope that the ensuing congressional debate proceeds a little more decorously than the last time a similar measure was up. This summer, almost 4,000 agency staff were furloughed without pay for about two weeks after getting caught in the middle of a partisan standoff over union organizing rules and  other issues. The total cost in lost salaries and benefits was about $40 million, according to the agency. Mica’s bill does not authorize any back pay for those workers.

Not clear at this point is how Senate Democrats plan to proceed. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., did not reply to email and phone messages Thursday and Friday seeking comment on Reid’s plans.

Mica’s bill would also extend highway programs through the end of March.

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Debt ceiling follies growing worse by the day

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(William Thomas Cain / Getty Images)

With four days to go (roughly) until the federal government runs out of cash, the effort to raise the debt ceiling is growing more and more chaotic. Last night, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, couldn’t muster enough GOP votes to pass his plan to raise the debt ceiling in two stages while cutting some $917 billion in discretionary spending (give or take a few hundred billion).

The strain is evident. Earlier in the week, Boehner told House Republicans to “get your ass in line” and back his plan, with no success. House GOP leadership is now scrambling to revise the bill and salvage a vote. But that’s bound to be a futile exercise anyway. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., already pledged to sink Boehner’s bill, Obama just denounced it as having “no chance of becoming law,” and making it more conservative just makes it even less likely to pass the Senate.

Meanwhile, millions of federal employees and retirees are growing increasingly nervous with no official word on how a potential default would affect them. The National Federation of Federal Employees today announced their “Each One, Reach One” campaign to pressure lawmakers to get their act together. NFFE President Bill Dougan wants all federal employees to call one or more of their representatives and tell them to raise the debt ceiling by the Aug. 2 deadline.

Because we’ve got to laugh so we don’t cry, here’s Stephen Colbert’s inspired — and incredibly dorky — riff on John McCain’s dismissal of Tea Partiers as “hobbits.”

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Obama picks Dodaro for GAO chief

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After more than two years as acting U.S.  Comptroller General–a job that entails leading the Government Accountability Office-Gene Dodaro got the nod today from President Obama for a long-term appointment to the post.

In a release, Obama said he intends to nominate Dodaro, a 37-year GAO veteran, for the position of Comptroller General. Dodaro has held the job on a provisional basis since March 2008; in a statement today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that she, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and a bipartisan congressional commission recommended Dodaro for the 15-year appointment.

“As the comptroller general, Gene Dodaro will continue to uphold the public trust as the leader of the GAO,” Pelosi said. Also praising the nomination was Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which will review Dodaro’s nomination as part of the Senate confirmation process.

Lieberman “has always thought Mr. Dodaro was an effective leader at GAO, and a valued adviser to Congress,” a spokeswoman said. “His nearly four decades of experience at GAO more than qualifies him for this key position.”

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