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Clinton Orders Return to Work for Thousands : Budget: He authorizes end of furlough next week for 50,000 federal employees, vows to veto stopgap funding.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Clinton on Thursday ordered thousands of furloughed government employees back to work next week to limit the disruption caused by the partial federal shutdown, even as he vowed to veto GOP-sponsored legislation that would provide stopgap funds to resume all suspended operations.

As the federal government closure stretched through an unprecedented three workdays, Clinton ordered back about 50,000 Social Security workers, 1,700 Department of Veterans Affairs employees and 100 Medicare employees to resume processing claims filed by older people and veterans.

Noting that on an average day, 28,000 Americans apply for Social Security benefits, 10,000 for Medicare and 7,500 for veterans’ assistance, Clinton said in an Oval Office appearance that “without remedial action, the backlog will be so great that service to these citizens would not return to normal for months to come. . . . I am determined to do what I can to reduce the damage to our people.”

A total of 800,000 employees, or 40% of the civilian federal work force, were furloughed Tuesday after the White House and Congress failed to agree on measures to authorize further federal borrowing and spending. The furlough has been the longest ever, and officials on both sides say it could continue for many more days.

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The Senate, meanwhile, sent to Clinton late Thursday night a stop gap spending measure that would provide funds for the government to resume normal operations while Congress and the White House play out the final acts of the 1996 budget drama.

But the measure, known as a continuing resolution, includes language calling for a balanced budget in seven years under conservative economic assumptions that Clinton has deemed too harsh. He promised to veto it immediately because it would compel him to swallow “highly unacceptable” cuts in government services.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) countered: “He’s made it pretty clear he doesn’t want a balanced budget. That’s the issue.”

The long-running budget fight began to take on something of a comic opera quality Thursday. The White House and congressional Democrats razzed House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) for his assertion that he had presented Clinton with a tough stopgap spending bill in part because he felt he had been slighted by the President during a trip on Air Force One to attend slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral.

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White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry, at his daily briefing, offered a long list of hardships that Americans have suffered because of the shutdown. He said they had come about “at least in part, because the Speaker of the House felt the President didn’t pay enough attention to him on Air Force One. That’s a pretty sad story.”

Clinton planned to try to return the ball to the Republican court by sending legislation to Capitol Hill on Thursday evening that would restart government operations on terms he favors. His proposal calls for government spending to continue until Dec. 15 under the same rules that had guided it between Sept. 30 and Tuesday. The measure also would authorize funds to compensate government employees who have been working without pay.

The employees to be recalled next week had been deemed “nonessential.” But the Justice Department legal opinion that guides such shutdowns provides that they can be brought back to work if there is an imminent threat to public health or safety. Officials said federal staffs have learned of cases that clearly fall in that category--primarily impoverished or frail applicants who cannot afford to have their benefit applications put off much longer.

“There’s no question that there’s a potential threat to life and security,” said Phil Gambino, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, noting that Social Security is a sole source of income for many people.

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The Social Security Administration will recall 49,700 employees, bringing the agency’s total complement to 54,500 as of Monday. That will allow the 1,300 field offices that have been staffed with skeleton crews of three people to raise their strength to 30 employees. The agency receives an average of 120,000 new applications each week.

The Department of Veterans Affairs will bring back 1,700 counselors and other staff members to handle an estimated backlog of 60,000 claims for compensation, pension benefits and GI Bill education benefits, officials said.

White House officials said more reinstatements are possible as the ill effects of the shutdown snowball over time. They noted that the return of these workers is consistent with the shutdown rules because the processing of applications will not incur large new government expenses. But other government functions would run afoul of the rules to the extent that they obligate the government for money that it technically doesn’t have, officials said.

The largest federal employee union argued in court Thursday that workers should not be forced back on the job without a legal assurance that they will be paid. Virginia Seitz, an attorney for the American Federation of Government Employees, argued to U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan that with no congressional appropriation, the union has no guarantee that its members will be paid.

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Justice Department lawyers countered that federal workers have always been compensated in shutdowns, which include four others in the last 14 years. And some outside labor lawyers forecast that the employees union would have a hard time persuading the judge to issue a ruling that, by sending all employees home, could bring on far greater hardship.

Baruch Fellner, a labor lawyer and former government official in Washington, said the union had his sympathies but is pressing a “frivolous” case.

Among those furloughed workers already back on the job are Transportation Department employees, who returned when Congress passed, and Clinton signed, a bill that pays their salaries for the next year.

Congressional Republicans contended that a new weakness in Clinton’s bargaining position was becoming visible with a House vote late Wednesday on the stopgap funding measure. Forty-eight Democrats abandoned the President in that tally after an assiduous effort by Clinton and his aides to keep the Democrats in his column.

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One defector, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills), said she was called first by the President, then by Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin and then by White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta to try to pressure her to vote against the GOP measure.

The President told her that a seven-year deadline for balancing the budget would not give him “maneuvering room” to soften aspects of the budget that he considers too harsh. But Harman argued that if the President signs the stopgap measure, he can use the goodwill he earns to persuade congressional leaders to sit down with him and debate the budget.

White House officials contend the desertion of the 48 did not signal new weakness. Rather, it came about because many House Democrats had gone on the record in previous votes for a balanced budget and could not afford to be accused of inconsistency, they said.

Also on Thursday, the House approved a $243-billion defense appropriations bill after breaking a deadlock over a provision that would bar abortions in military hospitals except to save the mother’s life or in cases of rape or incest.

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The House approved the bill, 270 to 158, and sent it to the Senate for final approval. But Democrats predicted that the legislation would be vetoed by Clinton because it contains $7 billion more for weapons than the President wants.

Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this story.

* RELATED STORIES: A24-A26

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Turned Away

With about 800,000 federal workers sent home, many people seeking government services Thursday were out of luck, including:

Social Security card applicants: 60,000

Travelers seeking passports: 23,000

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District of Columbia residents seeking health care: 600

Callers to Internal Revenue Service hotline: 80,000

Visitors to national parks: 726,000

Yosemite: California’s Yosemite National Park fell victim to the budget stalemate Thursday. Only a core group of emergency personnel and firefighters will remain on duty.

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Grand Canyon: The park closed Wednesday for the first time since it was established in 1919. Roads were barricaded and virtually all food and recreational services halted.

Sources: Times staff and wire reports


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