WASHINGTON — The House, in a rare Saturday session, voted unanimously to guarantee that federal workers will receive back pay once the partial government shutdown ends, offering a promise of relief if not an actual rescue to more than 1 million government employees either furloughed or working without pay.
The 407-0 vote, on a measure backed by President Obama, followed a debate in which lawmakers from both parties extolled government doctors and nurses saving lives, emergency-relief workers braving disasters to rescue citizens, and NASA scientists exploring space. In 2011, many of those same lawmakers, swept to power on a tea-party wave, pressed for legislation imposing a freeze on government salaries and held hearings on a federal workforce they said was overpaid and bloated.
The vote triggered the sort of derisive quarreling that has prevented Congress from resolving the larger funding and debt dilemmas.
“Of all the bizarre moments” involved in the debate, said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, “this may be the most bizarre: that we will pay people not to work.” He called it “the new tea-party sense of fiscal responsibility.”
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House Republicans said they want to ease the pain from the partial shutdown. Democrats said Congress should fully reopen the government and let employees work for the pay they’re going to receive.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Saturday the Democratic-controlled Senate will approve retroactive pay for furloughed workers, although he didn’t specify when.
The rare flash of bipartisanship served as a cruel tease to those hoping Congress is moving toward reopening the government and averting an unprecedented default on the federal debt.
Two days after House Speaker John Boehner raised hopes by telling colleagues he won’t let the nation go into default, key members of both parties conceded that no one has presented a plausible plan for avoiding it.
In addition to the promise of back pay for federal workers, there was relief Saturday for thousands of furloughed Pentagon workers. The Pentagon ordered at least 90 percent of its about 350,000 furloughed civilian employees back to work, significantly reducing the number of sidelined federal workers. In all, about 800,000 federal workers had been furloughed.
The Defense Department said the recall is based on a law passed by Congress last week that allows the Pentagon to end furloughs for “employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members.”
The larger stalemate over reopening the federal government persists. Boehner, asked Saturday whether Congress was any closer to resolving the impasse, replied: “No.” Aides close to Boehner say he has not figured out how to end the gridlock.
The politics of the government shutdown have merged with partisan wrangling over the graver issue of raising the federal debt limit by Oct. 17. If that doesn’t happen, the White House says, the government will be unable to pay all its bills, including interest on debt. Economists say a U.S. default would stun world markets and likely send this nation, and possibly others, into recession.
Boehner, R-Ohio, and Obama say they abhor the idea of a default. But they and their respective parties have not budged from positions that bar a solution.
After the back-pay vote, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, criticized Obama for what he called a failure of leadership for refusing to negotiate a way out of the impasse. But he said Republican leaders would not allow a vote to reopen the government without delivering a blow to the president’s health-care law, with a delay in the mandate that individuals purchase health insurance and a prohibition on federal subsidies for members of Congress, White House leaders and their staff, who must purchase policies on the law’s new insurance exchanges.
Frustration among Republicans is growing, however. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., who came to Congress on the tea-party wave of 2010, said his party was misled if it believed that shutting down the government could disrupt or cripple the Affordable Care Act. Because the health law is paid for by its own funding mechanisms, it is moving forward as other parts of the government have ground to a halt.
“Republicans have to realize how many significant gains we’ve made over the last three years — and we have, not only in cutting spending but really turning the tide on other things,” he said. “We can’t lose all that when there’s no connection now between the shutdown and the funding of Obamacare.”
“I think now it’s a lot about pride,” he added.
The House also voted, 400-1, on a resolution saying that military chaplains should be able to conduct religious services, despite the shutdown. Republicans accused the Obama administration of stifling religious freedom. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services, said Republicans had concocted an issue that did not exist.
The lone “no” vote belonged to Rep. William Enyart, D-Ill.
The bill continues a House Republican strategy of passing a series of smaller spending measures on popular topics in an effort to pressure Democrats to reopen at least portions of the government. These votes come after House Republicans refused to let the original funding measure come to the floor for a vote.
So far, the bills passed include ones to finance the National Institutes of Health; to reopen national parks, monuments and museums; to pay for veterans programs; and to pay inactive National Guardsmen and reservists. House Republicans expect to take up at least nine other small spending bills, such as financing the Head Start program for low-income children and the Department of Homeland Security’s border-protection programs.