The Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate has voted to strip controversial provisions from a measure that would temporarily fund federal operations, setting up a clash with the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives that could result in a partial shutdown of the U.S. government at midnight. But some lawmakers are still hoping to avert a shutdown with a last-minute deal to keep the government open for a short time while the two sides continue to negotiate.
A shutdown would have broad impacts on federal science programs, including halting granting activity at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), forcing most government scientists to stay home, and delaying work on NASA space missions. A small number of federal researchers deemed essential by their agencies would still report to work, such as those involved in caring for patients at NIH’s clinical research center, sustaining animal colonies in research laboratories, or handling weather data seen vital to public safety. Researchers who already have grant money in hand, or work for universities or companies that get money from the federal government, would not be immediately affected.
A shutdown is imminent because Congress has not passed a spending bill to finance the government for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins at midnight. Without such appropriations, agencies technically have no money to spend. So they cannot operate in a normal fashion.
In the past, such shutdowns have been the result of partisan battles over how much money the government should be spending, in other words, over fiscal issues. But this year is different. The trigger for this week’s crisis is a continuing attempt by Republicans to defund the new U.S. health care law (dubbed Obamacare by both sides) that goes into effect tomorrow. The House of Representatives, led by Republicans, so far has been unwilling to pass a “clean” funding bill that would temporarily extend the 2013 budget into 2014, at current spending levels. And the Senate, led by Democrats, has insisted that Obamacare is off the table.
The Senate followed through this afternoon, voting 54 to 46 on party lines to strip House provisions that would have delayed Obamacare or altered some funding mechanisms. It then approved a bill that would fund the government at current spending levels through 15 November, sending it back to the House. House leaders have said they will not approve that bill, but will instead add other provisions unacceptable to Senate Democrats, all but assuring a shutdown.
“Well, we’re at the brink,” said Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who heads the spending panel that oversees NIH’s budget, on the Senate floor after the vote. “What’s going to happen at NIH? … Seventy percent of the 10,000 men and women who work at NIH will be furloughed at midnight. … These are the men and women working on the cure for Alzheimer’s … autism … and I’m just working through the ‘A’ words. What kind of government would destroy the very agency that is trying to come up with cures?”
Some lawmakers, meanwhile, are hoping to round up enough support to pass a measure that would fund the government at current levels for a week or so, in hopes of reaching a resolution.
Even a shutdown doesn’t mean that the entire federal government will be closed. Agencies can win White House approval to designate essential activities that can continue despite the absence of a 2014 budget. The percentage of so-called excepted employees on an agency’s roster varies greatly depending on the agency’s mission. For example, almost everybody will continue working at the departments of Veterans Affairs, Justice, and Homeland Security, where health care and maintaining law and order are core activities. But at NSF, which spends 95% of its budget on research done by others, only a few dozen people who carry out building security, information systems, and overseeing the Antarctic program are deemed essential. However, whether the employees who carry out those essential activities will get paid, retroactively, is up to Congress.