Nation girds for a shutdown

Gulf remains as budget talks press on; workers warned furloughs imminent

Senate majority leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner shuttled between the White House and Congress throughout the day, but failed to reach a deal. Senate majority leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner shuttled between the White House and Congress throughout the day, but failed to reach a deal. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/ Associated Press)
By Theo Emery and Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / April 8, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The federal government began warning its scientists, park employees, tax collectors, environmental enforcers, and hundreds of thousands of other employees yesterday to prepare to be furloughed as negotiations among congressional leaders and President Obama continued to sputter, setting up a major disruption of government services at midnight tonight.

Most federal workers will not learn until today or tomorrow whether they are considered essential in the event of a shutdown. And even those required to work remain unclear on whether they will be paid.

Information trickled in yesterday from such agencies as the Interior Department on how extensive the shutdown would be and who would be out of work.

A vast majority of the department’s operations would cease, including US Geological Survey field work and oversight of the nation’s onshore oil and gas rigs. About three out of every four of the department’s 68,000 workers should expect to be stay home next week, a memo from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

At the Department of Labor, just 1,650 employees out 16,099 workers would stay on the job, according to a contingency plan. In all, the Obama administration said 800,000 workers face furloughs.

Members of the Massachusetts delegation fielded dozens of calls and messages yesterday from worried constituents over whether a shutdown would immediately halt such benefits as Social Security checks or Medicare payments. It will not.

Representative Edward J. Markey, the Malden Democrat, said his constituents are showing concern, but not panic.

“We’re certainly not at DEFCON 1,’’ he said, referring to the military readiness code for an imminent war. “We’re down at DEFCON 4 or 5.’’

State and city officials fear an extended shutdown will not only threaten such services as job training, homeless shelters, and Head Start programs for preschoolers, but will force them to come up with their own patchwork solutions.

Senator John F. Kerry held a conference call with about 20 Massachusetts mayors and municipal leaders to parse out what a shutdown would mean for them. Mayor James M. Ruberto of Pittsfield said the Massachusetts Democrat promised to use his staff to “help walk us through whatever problems crop up.’’

Yet, the status of Kerry’s own staff, and that of other members of Congress, remained unclear. Many aides face furloughs themselves.

The inability of congressional leaders so far to prevent a shutdown prompted a broadside from Kerry.

“This is disgraceful,’’ he said. “It’s going to hurt the United States of America; it’s going to hurt average people.’’

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, and House Speaker John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, spent yesterday shuttling between the White House and Capitol Hill for a series of negotiations.

A third White House meeting in two days ended last night with Obama saying differences had been narrowed and staffs would work through the night.

Although Reid and Boehner also professed some movement toward a deal, the divide over how and where to cut remained daunting. A bid by Republicans for yet one more stopgap spending bill, this one covering government expenses for a week and military spending for the rest of the fiscal year, passed the House earlier in the day. Obama vowed to veto it, saying the time for more delays has passed.

Congressional leaders could not even agree publicly on the stumbling blocks preventing a deal. Senate Democrats insisted both sides were close on the amount of cuts — around $34 billion through September — and the only obstacle was GOP intransigence over ideological issues. House Republicans have been insisting that any deal strip funding for Planned Parenthood clinics and prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases.

Boehner denied these demands were the reason for the impasse, insisting Democrats were not cutting deep enough.

Republicans have also been seeking to strip funding from the EPA’s efforts on several other fronts, including a vote that failed Wednesday in the Senate. Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts joined most of his GOP colleagues in backing the measure, the first time he has joined a direct attempt to kill the regulations.

Government oversight on greenhouse gas emissions has wide support among Massachusetts officials, cleaner energy companies, and environmental groups. The state, in fact, successfully sued the EPA to force it to develop such guidelines under the Clean Air Act, a case that was decided in the Supreme Court in 2007.

The Sierra Club said it plans to protest outside Brown’s Boston office on Tuesday.

“Essentially he turned his back on science, clean air and the people of Massachusetts-and stood with polluters,’’ said Drew Grande, a Boston organizer with the group.

Dave Miller, cofounder of an investment partnership called the Clean Energy Venture Group, said he was extremely disappointed: “Why is he voting with Kentucky and Oklahoma, instead of sticking up for the Massachusetts clean energy economy?’’

Brown defended the vote, saying that he opposes what he called the EPA’s “power to impose new regulatory burdens on American businesses.’’ His office declined to comment on the GOP’s efforts to target the EPA rules as part of the budget.

“I am open to working with leaders from both parties on common-sense environmental policy, but right now we should be focused on the overwhelming need to reduce our rising energy costs, protect jobs and get the economy moving again,’’ he said.

His stance won the backing of the Massachusetts arm of the National Federation of Independent Business, which said using the Clean Air Act to address climate change was inappropriate.

On Capitol Hill, questions were raised yesterday about whether senators and representatives should be paid if the government shuts down. Last month, the Senate passed a bill calling for such cuts, but it has not passed the House.

Meanwhile, federal workers such as those who predict the weather are struggling to predict their own fate.

“Employees of the National Weather Service are prepared to go to work — with no guarantee of payment. Paychecks will be delayed for essential employees, if they receive one at all,’’ a notice from the workers’ union said. “For those employees considered nonessential, there will be no work and presumably no paycheck.’’

Theo Emery can be reached at Mark Arsenault can be reached at top stories on Twitter

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