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Congress OKs Bill to Get Workers Back to Jobs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bowing to apparent public disgust with the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, Congress Friday approved legislation that would send 280,000 furloughed federal employees back to work until Jan. 26--despite GOP concerns that the reprieve will relax pressure on President Clinton to negotiate a broader budget agreement.

The bill, which also restores funding for several of the federal government’s most popular and visible programs, falls short of reopening the government because it does not include operating funds for many federal activities.

But Congress also passed a second bill that would reopen the entire federal government until Jan. 26--paying both operating costs and workers’ salaries--but only if Clinton accedes to Republicans’ long-standing demand that he submit a proposal for balancing the budget in seven years, using Congressional Budget Office estimates.

Clinton has refused to do so but Republican leaders, after meeting with him at the White House Friday, said that they are hopeful Clinton will produce such a plan soon, clearing the way for full restoration of government services. But House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) cautioned: “He has not made a decision.”

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The Senate passed the bill to send federal employees back to work without operating funds by voice vote. The House passed it by a 401-to-17 vote, with 15 Republicans and two Democrats voting against it. The margin is a testament to the unpopularity of the government shutdown--and to the party discipline applied to Republican members by Gingrich, who made a stern appeal to his troops to accept a fundamental shift in GOP budget strategy.

“He didn’t leave any room for anyone to vote no,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

Clinton is expected to sign the bill that sends workers back to their jobs without operating funds Monday, even though he said that it “amounts to cruel and unusual punishment” because it leaves many federal services without funding. Under the bill, federal workers at affected agencies will return to their jobs and will be paid but they will not be able to spend federal money for such purposes as disbursing federal grants and contracts and purchasing equipment.

However, the measure includes operating funds for a small list of the government’s most popular and visible functions, including veterans benefits, national parks and passport processing.

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In another step toward easing the effects of the shutdown, the House late Friday began debating yet another bill that would restore operating funds for programs in another 17 agencies, including law enforcement activities at the Justice Department, Medicare, Medicaid, the National Institutes of Health, the Peace Corps, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black-lung disease benefits for coal miners and certain Native American programs.

The bill was expected to be approved by the House and Senate late Friday, after which the House is expected to recess until Jan. 23, when Clinton is scheduled to deliver his annual State of the Union message.

Republicans said the bills passed Friday represent a new GOP budget strategy of reopening the government bit by bit, by funding the activities they like and starving the programs they dislike.

They said that strategy was developed on the assumption that high-level negotiations with Clinton over plans to balance the budget in seven years were going nowhere.

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“We better accept the reality that [the negotiators] are not going to get an agreement and continue our work for the rest of the year,” said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

But Democrats said that the move to send federal employees back to work was a major concession from House Republicans, who formerly had refused to reopen the government until an agreement was reached with the White House to balance the budget in seven years.

“That represents a fairly huge shift over the last three days,” said White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry. “Now they’ve relented because I think frankly that strategy backfired on them.”

But Republicans said that they hoped to keep putting pressure on Clinton to compromise on a balanced-budget plan in high-level negotiations between Clinton and congressional leaders, which were to resume Saturday and continue through today.

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The second measure approved by Congress--making the full restoration of government services contingent on Clinton submitting a balanced budget--was designed to step up pressure on Clinton to endorse a CBO-certified balanced budget. So far Clinton has offered only a budget that shows balance because it uses more optimistic economic assumptions than does CBO.

“The challenge now is for the president to submit a balanced budget,” said Gingrich. “The burden is now on his desk.”

Early in the day, McCurry said that the president would not respond to that GOP demand.

But after meeting with Clinton late Friday afternoon, Gingrich told reporters in the Capitol: “It is our hope the president will submit a balanced budget by [Saturday] or [today].” Dole said that “there’s some reason to believe” Clinton may do so.

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Friday’s House votes to return federal employees to work capped a week of rapidly changing budget dynamics that put House Republicans increasingly on the defensive.

Senate Republicans broke with House GOP strategy Tuesday when they approved a bill to reopen the government temporarily while budget talks continue. That turned up the heat on House Republicans.

A turning point in the leadership’s change of course came, a top leadership aide said, when Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) wrote a letter to Gingrich urging him to change strategy and bring up a measure to reopen the government. Fifteen House Republicans signed on to the proposal. That was a small number of potential defectors but it was enough to threaten GOP leaders’ control of the issue in the House, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by only a 39-vote margin.

“The defining moment came when we understood there were about 30 Republicans prepared to vote with the Democrats,” the aide said.

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House leaders then drafted a plan to send employees back to their jobs until March 15 but failed to sell it to a rebellious GOP conference where many members complained that the move would be seen as a cave-in to the president. GOP leaders regrouped and revised the proposal.

The political problems of selectively reopening the government became immediately apparent to House GOP leaders as they began talking about putting together another bill that would provide targeted funding for additional programs. House leaders said that they were deluged with requests from members to have their favorite programs included.

Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus and staff writer Paul Richter also contributed to this story.


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