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WASHINGTON – Facing a down-to-the-wire drama, U.S. agencies braced for a possible federal shutdown that would begin at the end of the day Thursday if Congress doesn't pass a bill to keep the government running.
Hundreds of thousands of nonessential federal employees could be furloughed beginning Friday – forced to take time off without pay – if Congress does not avert a shutdown before funding expires at the end of the fiscal year, which occurs at midnight.
The federal workforce has already been upended for the past 18 months during the coronavirus pandemic, which forced many government workers, like other Americans, to stay home under their safety restrictions.
The National Parks Service, which has closed some parks and facilities during past shutdowns, is among the departments reviewing contingency plans. Spokeswoman Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles said Wednesday that "determinations about specific operations and programs have not been made."
Employees deemed necessary to protect life and property such as air traffic controllers, law enforcement, public health officials and federal firefighters would continue to work if the government shuts down, but they wouldn't be paid until Congress appropriates funding.
"It would be devastating if there's a shutdown," said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit focused on good governance. He pointed to the pressures the pandemic placed on workers and said although the federal government would maintain emergency services, "it does that at a real cost" by not paying employees.
"And lots of the government will, in fact, be shut down. It makes what is already incredibly hard even harder. I've described this as burning down your house in the middle of a blizzard," he said. "And that's being kind."
The last government shutdown lasted 35 days and started Dec. 21, 2018, when Donald Trump was president. It followed brief shutdowns in January and February 2018.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday the administration is focused on getting a bill to fund the government passed in Congress to avert a shutdown, but the Office of Management and Budget has been working on contingencies. Each federal department and agency submitted plans to OMB on what a shutdown would mean for its workers.
"They are costly, disruptive and damaging," Psaki said, noting that the Congressional Budget Office found a partial shutdown in 2019 cost the economy $11 billion, or more than $31 million a day.
Psaki cited additional "harmful effects" – more than 6,000 firefighters battling wildfires would not receive a paycheck and about 43% of Health and Human Service employees and 60% of IRS employees would be furloughed. She said Americans seeking to secure an Federal Housing Administration loan could face delays and veterans could face delays securing services.
"Of course, our objective is to ensure we avoid it," she said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced an agreement late Wednesday for a vote Thursday morning on a resolution to extend government funding, setting up a potential House vote later in the day. A shutdown would be averted if Biden signs the resolution into law before midnight.
"Now, we are ready to move forward," Schumer said on the Senate floor.
The countdown to a possible shutdown has collided with President Joe Biden's efforts to pass his economic agenda. The House is set to vote Thursday on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, one of two planks of Biden's Build Back Better agenda.
The House had approved a combined spending extension and increase in the nation's ability to borrow. Senate Republicans blocked that measure Monday, arguing that Democrats should raise the debt limit on their own.
The stand-alone funding bill – which would not touch the debt limit – would operate the government through Dec. 3, to give lawmakers time to approve routine spending measures for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The bill would provide $28.6 billion for disaster assistance and $6.3 billion for Afghan refugees.
Other government shutdowns came during Barack Obama's presidency, when the government ceased operations for 16 days in October 2013. The government shut down 21 days from December 1995 to January 1996 when Bill Clinton was president.
OMB spokesman Abdullah Hasan said that although the budget office fully expects Congress to "keep our government open, get disaster relief to the Americans who need it and avoid a catastrophic default," officials are preparing for a possible funding lapse.
The IRS, for example, would maintain 32,178 workers out of 82,412 total employees to carry out responsibilities required by federal law and other obligations, according to the Treasury Department's contingency plan. The remaining workers would be furloughed.
Under OMB guidelines, federal employees must work during a shutdown if they meet legal exceptions such as work related to the “safety of human life or the protection of property.” Mandatory spending programs – including social safety net programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – that don’t require annual authorization also would continue.
"Consistent with long-standing practice across multiple administrations, OMB is preparing for any contingency, and determinations about specific programs are being actively reviewed by agencies," Hasan said. "More importantly, there is enough time for Congress to prevent a lapse in appropriations, and we are confident they will do so."
Unlike other government shutdowns, this one would come during a pandemic that has transformed the roles of many federal workers.
Psaki said most public health workers involved in the administration's efforts to increase COVID-19 vaccinations would be exempted from a shutdown.
"But that doesn't change the fact that having services shut down and staffing cut in different agencies is not in the interests of addressing any crisis we face including the pandemic," she said.
What could be affected during a shutdown?
Social Security and Medicare: Payments would continue, but benefit verification and card issuance would stop.
National parks: Some park gates remained open during the last government shutdown, but visitor services and maintenance stopped.
Flights: Air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration officers worked through the last shutdown, but slowdowns were reported in airports.
Mortgage and loans: The Internal Revenue Service would not verify Social Security numbers and income. In previous shutdowns, this created a backlog of loan approvals.
Food inspections: The Food and Drug Administration delayed inspections during shutdowns.
Supplemental Nutritional Assistance: Benefits were paid while carryover money was available in state and federal accounts.
Border: Customs and border agents worked at crossings and ports of entry during previous shutdowns.
Source: Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Congressional Research Service, USA TODAY
Contributing: Bart Jansen and Rick Rouan
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Government shutdown: Furloughs possible if Congress doesn't act