Is the Obama administration employing a make-it-hurt strategy to gain political leverage in the budget battle on Capitol Hill?
Republicans are making that charge as the stalemate drags on, and point to the Pentagon furlough of 400,000 civilian staffers — even though Congress passed and the president signed a bill to supposedly keep them on the job.
The partial government suspension, which started Monday after lawmakers failed to strike a budget deal, is expected to result in the furlough of roughly 800,000 total government workers. Many federal agencies have significantly curtailed their operations; national parks and monuments are closed.
But Republicans are accusing the Obama administration of making the situation worse than it has to be. They complained overnight that the Pentagon furloughed 400,000 of its civilian staffers.
“This is no time to use national security or our national security workforce as a political pawn,” Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
The dispute comes ahead of a planned White House meeting late Wednesday afternoon. House Speaker John Boehner and other congressional leaders have agreed to meet with Obama to discuss the stalemate. “We’re pleased the president finally recognizes that his refusal to negotiate is indefensible. It’s unclear why we’d be having this meeting if it’s not meant to be a start to serious talks between the two parties,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said in a statement.
The bill concerning military pay was the only piece of legislation that Congress passed — and Obama signed — in the run-up to the midnight deadline on Monday. According to the text, it would pay the Armed Forces, as well as civilian and contractor personnel deemed to be “providing support” to the Armed Forces.
Nevertheless, the Pentagon determined that 400,000 were “not necessary” to that mission and sent them home on Monday. According to a document circulated in the Pentagon, they will be considered “non-pay, non-duty” until the budget standoff is over.
Asked about McKeon’s letter, a senior Defense official indicated there was no way to respond. “Unfortunately, most of the staff who draft congressional correspondence are furloughed,” the official told Fox News.
Pentagon officials have indicated a willingness to examine the law to see if there’s any wiggle room to bring more civilians back to work.
Republicans argue that the intent of the law was to keep them on the job, and that the Obama administration “narrowly interpreted” it against congressional intent in order to furlough more employees.
It’s one example of how, Republicans say, the administration is making the partial shutdown of government services worse than it needs to be. Many have complained about the National Park Service cordoning off even open-air monuments in Washington, D.C., such as the World War II Memorial.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., accused the administration of selectively closing parks. His office noted that less-visited sites like the Constitutional Gardens remain open, while major draws like the National Mall are closed.
“It appears as though only the highly visible monuments and areas are being closed to the public — further proof that the Obama Administration is only playing politics and purposely choosing to make this shut down as painful as possible,” he said in a statement.
House Republicans are trying to push a series of mini-spending bills aimed at prying open certain portions of the government, including national parks and monuments.
After failing to get the bills passed on Tuesday, Republicans will try once again on Wednesday. In addition to bills funding the National Park Service and Veterans Affairs operations, and allowing the District of Columbia to spend money, Republicans are putting up more spending bills specific to the National Institutes of Health and the National Guard and Reserves.
But Democrats have made clear that they do not intend to accept any of them, pressuring Republicans to instead pass a “clean” budget bill — or one that does not include any riders that would chip away at ObamaCare.
Republicans have insisted that the budget bill include measures that defund, delay or rein in parts of the health care law. Democrats refused, and both parties were at an impasse at midnight on Monday.
Democrats have telegraphed that they don’t want to let Republicans pry open select parts of government in order to ease the pressure.
“It is time for Speaker Boehner to stop the games, think about the people he is hurting, and let the House pass the Senate’s bill to re-open the government with Republican and Democratic votes,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday night.
The White House has also rejected the bills in advance.
“The president and the Senate have been clear that they won’t accept this kind of game-playing, and if these bills were to come to the president’s desk he would veto them,” said White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage. “These piecemeal efforts are not serious and they are no way to run a government.”
Mike Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, fired back, “How dowhite housees the White House justify signing the troop funding bill, but vetoing similar measures for veterans, National Parks, and District of Columbia? The President can’t continue to complain about the impact of the government shutdown on veterans, visitors at National Parks, and DC while vetoing bills to help them. The White House position is unsustainably hypocritical.”