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Maine's federal workers prepare for looming government shutdown

In this Wednesday, May 6, 2020 photo, the Acadia National Park visitor center remains closed to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, near Bar Harbor, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
In this Wednesday, May 6, 2020 photo, the Acadia National Park visitor center remains closed to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, near Bar Harbor, Maine.

Maine's nearly 12,000 federal workers are bracing for the impacts of a potential government shutdown later this weekend.

If the government does close, veterans will continue to receive health care at the Togus VA Medical Center and other clinics around the state. Social Security offices will remain open. And Maine's Transportation Security Administration officers will work without a paycheck until the shutdown ends.

Bill Reiley is a regional vice president for an American Federation of Government Employees Local, which represents TSA officers at airports in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

"You know you're going to get paid, but you don't know when," Reiley said. "It's a horrible feeling."

The National Park Service has said it will furlough a majority of its workforce. Visitors should expect parks to close and services to be unavailable starting Monday, the agency said.

It's unclear exactly how many federal employees in Maine would have to work without pay or would be furloughed and sent home. Union officials say if the government does close, the impacts will more closely resemble those felt during a 16-day shutdown back in 2013, when about 40% of federal workers and military members in Maine and across the country were furloughed.

A smaller number were sent home without pay in 2018, because several major agencies had the funds to remain open.

All federal employees will eventually be paid after a shutdown ends, according to a 2019 that law requires retroactive pay for all workers regardless of their furlough status.

TSA workers are due to receive their next paycheck Monday, Reiley said, and he's not too concerned yet about the financial impacts of a possible government shutdown. But he worries about his younger colleagues who may not have the savings to get them through an extended shutdown.

"When we get to be three weeks out, and all the sudden people are saying, 'Oh, what am I going to do here? I have to pay my mortgage or I have to pay my car payment; I don't have any money.' That's when it gets interesting," he said.

If there's one bright spot, Reiley said, Mainers were friendlier as they went through the airport security checkpoints during the last shutdown in 2018, which lasted for 34 days. Some also donated gift cards to the TSA workers, Reiley added.

Maine's two U.S. House members voted against a Republican bill on Friday that would have kept federal offices open for 30 days while making deep spending cuts to agencies.

Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden joined all of their Democratic colleagues and more than 20 Republicans in voting against the stopgap spending measure. The vote makes it even more likely that Congress will trigger the third federal government in 10 years.

There's a bipartisan bill in the Senate that would keep the government open through mid-November. Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who is the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Thursday that she and other senators a working to add border security provisions to the bill in hopes of picking up GOP support in the House.

But a small, vocal faction of House Republicans have vowed to try to remove GOP House Speaker Kevin McCarthy if he brings the bill up for a vote. But many of those same Republican lawmakers also voted against the resolution crafted by Republicans to circumvent a government shutdown on Sunday.

In an interview before the House vote on Friday, Pingree accused hardline Republicans of playing games and of proposing what she characterized as a harmful bill that would cut spending by 30% as a form of “messaging” to their conservative supporters.

"It cuts just all kinds of things that are important to Maine,” said Pingree, who represents Maine’s 1st District and serves on the House Appropriations Committee that is responsible for crafting spending bills. “I mean, decimating the LIHEAP program – at this time of year, we are not going to go along with that. It makes huge cuts from public education (and) FEMA money. It's just sort of a slash-and-burn bill. And not only will Democrats not vote for it on the House floor, the Senate will never take it up."

Golden, D-District 2, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers have proposed their own temporary spending bill but McCarthy has not brought it to the House floor. A moderate Democrat who is one of the leaders of the bipartisan Problem Solver’s Caucus, Golden said earlier this week that the Republican proposal seeking deep spending cuts across the federal government were non-starters with Democrats.

"We already have a coalition of 32 Republicans, 32 Democrats in the House who have signed onto this framework,” Golden said of the group’s proposal. “And we are showing Speaker McCarthy a pathway forward to a deal that we believe very strongly could also pass the United States Senate and either fund the government without a shutdown or end one if that becomes necessary."

Supporters of the bipartisan bills in the House or Senate could attempt to use a parliamentary procedure to circumvent McCarthy and force a vote on the measures. But such a procedure typically takes several days to complete.

Without action, federal offices will close at 12:01 a.m. on Sunday, although some federal employees – such as Transportation Security Administration personnel who work at airports, air traffic controllers and Coast Guard personnel – will be required to work without pay as “essential” personnel.