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Once Again, the Government Locks its Doors

December 18, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ They knew the drill. For the second time in a month, federal workers arrived at their offices only to be told, ``Go home.″ Many were angry that a second partial shutdown of the government would disrupt their work and their lives so close to the holidays.

``It’s a particularly nasty time of year for something like this to happen,″ said Victor Zonana, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

This time, however, the jolt won’t be nearly so strong as when the federal government shut down a month ago and furloughed 800,000 employees.

The shutdown that began in earnest today affects some 260,000 federal workers, about 13 percent of the total. Initially, it should inconvenience far fewer Americans than the larger mid-November closing, but the effects would worsen if it lasts several days.

Those who expected to be furloughed had to show up at work in the morning but were sent home within hours. They follow the first round of workers furloughed over the weekend _ mostly national park employees.

``It’s absolutely disgusting,″ Labor Department staffer Walter Martin said on the way into his office this morning. ``There’s a lot of work to be done that’s not being done.″

Before the last shutdown, congressional leaders and President Clinton promised that furloughed workers would be paid, and they were. But there have been no promises this time, and some workers are worried.

``More than anything, I worry about the impact for employees who live from paycheck to paycheck,″ said Linda Blair, who works for the Federal Communications Commission. ``Personally, I’m very fortunate. We still have food on the table and can pay the rent.″

Others said they were frustrated that the shutdown disrupts work the public depends on.

``Most of us who work for the government are do-gooders, who want do something for the American society,″ said Sheldon Bloom. He arrived at his Labor Department post bearing a bag full of presents for his colleagues, in case the shutdown lasted through Christmas.

The administration has promised that Social Security and Medicare benefit checks will go out on time. Passport applications won’t get processed, but as in November, the Postal Service will not be affected and vital workers in public health and safety will stay on the job.

In the long run, however, this shutdown could be just as crippling as the six-day closure, the longest in history, that ended on Nov. 19. That one cost the government an estimated $750 million, more than half of it in retroactive salaries to workers who were sent home.

If the second shutdown isn’t over by Thursday morning, veterans’ benefit checks for more than 3.3 million people would be delayed, said Ken McKinnon, spokesman for the Veterans’ Affairs Department. The checks are supposed to be mailed Dec. 29, but the department has neither the money nor the personnel to process them.

Senate Republican leader Bob Dole expressed pessimism Sunday about a breakthrough in negotiations between the White House and Congress on a seven-year balanced budget plan. As a result, he said, the government ``will probably be shut down for a while.″

When the first shutdown began Nov. 14, Congress had passed and the president had signed only four of the 13 spending bills needed to operate the government in the fiscal year beginning last Oct. 1.

Now, seven bills have been enacted into law, meaning employees for such departments as Defense, Agriculture and Transportation are unaffected by the shutdown. But the remaining six bills are among the most intractable.

The president has three bills on his desk covering natural resources, veterans’ affairs, housing and the departments of Commerce, Justice and State. He has threatened to veto all three because he says cuts to environmental, housing and international programs are too large.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and other Republican leaders appeared Sunday at the deserted, windblown Washington Monument to demand that Clinton sign the Interior Department bill and allow national parks to open.

``I’ve never been to the Washington Monument and kind of had my heart set on seeing it today,″ Armey said.

Also still hung up in the Senate is a major bill to finance education programs and the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services.

HHS spokesman Campbell Gardett said a big question is whether his department will be able to pay the states $25 billion for Medicaid programs and $4 billion for welfare when those bills come due on Jan. 1.

The current shutdown actually began at midnight Friday, when Congress did not extend a temporary spending measure put in place after the last closure. Over the weekend, though, about the only people who felt it were tourists shut out of museums and national parks.