Despite stopgap budget, furloughs at Hill still possible

Mar 19 2013 - 6:42am

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Lois Mitchell gets a comforting hand from Phil Scott as she talks about her grandson's recent deployment to Afghanistan and impending furloughs for Crane workers Friday, March 15, 2013 in Crane, Ind., just outside the military facility's main gate. The employees are protesting a three-year pay freeze and pending 22-day work furlough resulting from automatic federal budget cuts. (AP Photo, Bloomington Herald-Times, David Snodgress)
Lois Mitchell gets a comforting hand from Phil Scott as she talks about her grandson's recent deployment to Afghanistan and impending furloughs for Crane workers Friday, March 15, 2013 in Crane, Ind., just outside the military facility's main gate. The employees are protesting a three-year pay freeze and pending 22-day work furlough resulting from automatic federal budget cuts. (AP Photo, Bloomington Herald-Times, David Snodgress)

WASHINGTON -- The stopgap budget that Congress is likely to pass this week to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year gives a few agencies flexibility to address spending priorities, but it likely won't stop furloughs at Hill Air Force Base.

The budget will lock in $85 billion in across-the-board cuts known as the sequester until Sept. 30.

The version of the plan approved by the House -- known as a continuing resolution -- allows the Defense Department to address its current spending needs rather than rely on plans that have become outdated.

The Senate is expected to allow that flexibility in a few additional areas: the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice and Homeland Security and scientific areas such as the National Institutes of Health.

Both bills avoid another partisan showdown in Congress over fiscal issues and keep the government going once the current stopgap budget expires March 27. By rebalancing some spending, the new plans would cushion the effects of the sequester, since unspent money from last year could now be used.

But neither plan restores funding lost to the automatic cuts or gives agency heads new authority to shift money from program to program to help manage their effects.

The Pentagon, for example, would add $10.4 billion to its operations and maintenance budget, where shortfalls have led to plans to curtail training, suspend some maintenance work and other steps that commanders fear would take a toll on force readiness.

The money would be offset with other defense cuts.

But the military will still absorb half of the sequester reductions. The furlough notices that Defense officials have sent to the majority of the department's 800,000 civilian employees -- announcing up to 22 unpaid days to begin one day a week in April -- are not likely to be rescinded.

Melissa Subbotin, spokeswoman for Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said until the bill is finalized with changes from the Senate, it would be premature to discuss what its impacts would be to federal furloughs.

"We haven't seen the Senate version (of the bill) yet," she said. "So until then, everything is completely in limbo."

Subbotin said Bishop voted for the original bill already passed by the House and the hope was that money for the Pentagon would lessen the blow of the furloughs.

"The hope was that the Department of Defense would be able to find enough cuts in other places to avoid these sweeping furloughs," Subbotin said. "But we really don't know what's going to happen now."

Hill Air Force Base spokesman Rich Essary said there are approximately 11,500 civilian employees on base that could be subject to furloughs.

Agriculture Department spokeswoman Courtney Rowe said 9,212 meat inspectors would still be forced to take 11 unpaid days starting in July, spreading them out until the fiscal year ends. The $53 million in sequester cuts to the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which spends about 87 percent of its budget on personnel, would not be offset by new flexibility.

Agriculture and Defense are two of the many agencies planning furloughs. In recent days, formal notices have been sent to employees at the Justice Department (116,000 employees), the Environmental Protection Agency (17,000), the Federal Aviation Administration (47,000), the Labor Department (4,700), Customs and Border Protection (60,000), the Office of Management and Budget (480), and the National Labor Relations Board (1,600).

Others saying that they plan furloughs are the Internal Revenue Service; the departments of Education, the Interior, and Housing and Urban Development; and the federal courts.

This will be the first time that furloughs across the federal government will occur with no chance that lost pay will be recovered.

The IRS employs 4,100 workers in Utah, many at its Ogden office, but it's still unclear how many of them will be furloughed. An IRS spokesman could not be reached on Monday.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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