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It’s Business as Usual for Many on Capitol Hill

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the limping American government began the great task of determining what was essential and what was not, it was decided Tuesday that the members-only basement gymnasium at the House of Representatives was not exactly a vital service. The gym was closed.

But so many lawmakers had complained by Wednesday that the doors were opened again so members of Congress could swim, play basketball and lift weights as they sort out the budget impasse.

While the federal government has been on furlough this week, it’s hard to tell on parts of Capitol Hill. “If we are in a furlough, it doesn’t feel like that around here,” one Democratic House staffer said with disgust.

The shoeshine vendors are privately contracted so you can still get a spit shine at the Capitol. The House dining room, also private, is still serving hot food. The elevator operators were let go, leaving members to press their own buttons, but the electric subway that runs between the House and Senate hummed without interruption.

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The offices of some Democrats seemed to be on life-support, handling the basics with skeleton crews, while many Republican offices operated at full steam whether they were paid or not.

A letter circulated Monday by Bakersfield Republican Bill Thomas, head of the House Oversight Committee, instructed House members that only those employees whose primary responsibilities are directly related to legislative activities be kept on.

Thomas furloughed no one. “When you have calls and visits from constituents pouring in to the tune of 50 to 100 an hour, this is not the time to close a district office. That indicates you don’t want to hear from your constituents on the biggest piece of legislation in this two years of Congress,” said Cathy Abernathy, Thomas’ chief of staff.

But Democrats Robert T. Matsui of Sacramento and Vic Fazio of West Sacramento each let go about half of their staffs. Sen. Dianne Feinstein closed all four California offices; Sen. Barbara Boxer closed none. Few made a greater sacrifice than Rep. William P. Luther (D-Minn.), who furloughed his entire crew and manned the phones.

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“My office is closed,” his Washington answering machine apologized. He left his home phone number in Stillwater, Minn., in case of an emergency.

Freshman Republican Brian P. Bilbray of San Diego said he expects his staff members to stay on the job whether or not they get paid. “I’m going to make these guys work. They signed on for the duration and they will do the public’s business until the public’s business is done. And if they end up not getting paid for it, that’s tough,” Bilbray said, reasoning that a confused and angry public needs its congressional representatives now more than ever.

Bilbray said members of Congress are making considerable sacrifices as the standoff continues without an end in sight, threatening the weekend and, perhaps, the Thanksgiving holiday. “The biggest sting I feel is not being able to go home for my daughter’s birthday this weekend or telling my son I won’t be able to see his championship football game,” he said.

Republican freshman Andrea Seastrand of Santa Barbara vowed Wednesday to accept no congressional pay while federal employees are furloughed by a shutdown.

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And one New York Republican, envisioning how the whole mess would look by election time, cautioned: “Any member of Congress who says someone on his staff is nonessential better rethink it.”

Still, some were concerned about the image of a Congress that passed a law this year requiring lawmakers to live under the same rules as the rest of the country. Rep. John T. Myers (R-Ind.) made his point by resigning as chairman of the Gym Committee when the facility reopened.

But several members defended the gym’s availability, citing a letter from the attending physician of the Capitol, who wrote House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on Tuesday that some lawmakers are under orders to exercise for medical reasons and others needed to work off stress.

Meanwhile, the national blood pressure appeared to be rising as the Capitol switchboard jammed for a second day with calls from opinionated voters. Feinstein’s staff struggled to assist constituents and the senator was considering reopening some district offices to assist a public teeming with questions about veterans’ benefits, stalled passports, jeopardized visas and Social Security checks.

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“I’ve let half the staff go, caseworkers in charge of people’s lives,” one congressman’s chief of staff grumbled, fielding a media call for a furloughed press secretary. “If members were answering their own phones, this crisis would soon be over.”


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