Budget: Key Players Meet
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MR. HOLMAN: It was an appropriately cold and rainy Monday morning last month when the first federal shutdown began. Workers already were disillusioned.
GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEE: (November 14) I think the government workers have become ping pong balls, and here in Washington, and I think they’re driving people away.
MR. HOLMAN: Congressional Republicans and their White House counterparts began negotiations that ultimately led to the White House agreeing to the Republicans’ central demand, that the President commit to a plan to balance the federal budget within seven years using Congressional Budget Office figures. That concession paved the way for an agreement to fund the government for a month. It reopened November 20th, with back pay for furloughed workers. But even as they celebrated their pre-Thanksgiving accord, it was clear the two sides had somewhat different views of what they’d just agreed to.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH, Speaker of the House: (November 20) We now have a commitment by the President, a commitment by the Minority leaders that they will work with us to get to a balanced budget in seven years, and that it’ll be scored in an honest way with honest numbers I think is one of the great historic achievements in modern America.
LEON PANETTA, White House Chief of Staff: (November 20) The key words in this agreement are that the President and Congress must agree on an agreement that protects those priorities that we have been fighting for time and time again.
MR. HOLMAN: Chief among those presidential priorities were higher funding for Medicare and Medicaid than Republicans called for. And a month of negotiations failed to produce agreement on those and other aspects of a balanced budget plan.
LEON PANETTA: Both sides have kind of dug in, and if you really want to have viable negotiations, there’s got to be some give to get it done.
MR. HOLMAN: But over that time, year-long funding for most federal departments was approved, so when the latest short-term agreement expired on December 15th, only about a third of the 2 million-member federal work force was impacted, from the Commerce Department to the Department of Housing & Urban Development, to the Environmental Protection Agency. But this time, workers were told they wouldn’t be paid right away for their furlough days. In Baltimore this week, federal workers were feeling the financial squeeze.
UNIDENTIFIED WORKER: (Tuesday) You hold on to every penny. I mean, it’s the first year that I have not been able to exchange Christmas gifts.
MR. HOLMAN: And in Baltimore today, there was an even larger demonstration by federal workers.
(DEMONSTRATION BY FEDERAL WORKERS)
MR. HOLMAN: Such pressure may have helped prompt House Republicans to suggest yesterday that the President and congressional leaders be locked in a room until they reach a budget agreement. And on the Senate floor this afternoon, members from both sides of the aisle acknowledged sensitivity to the shutdown and its financial impact on federal workers.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, (D) Vermont: Frankly, I think that some members of Congress ought to be asked–those who feel that we should lock up the leadership and the President ought to be asked, well, why did you leave last weekend? Did you go home for a Christmas vacation? Did the taxpayers pay for your airplane fares home? Of course, they did. Did the taxpayers pay for your salary while you were home making political speeches? Well, of course, they did.
SEN. ROBERT DOLE, Majority Leader: As I’ve said before, the employees are sort of the pawns in this game. It’s–this is a struggle for whatever we hope will happen over the next seven years. It’s very important. But to somebody out there who’s not working and only get, you know, lives from paycheck to paycheck, it’s not a very happy choice. Secondly, and they should be paid, even though some would say, in effect, many might call and say, why are you paying people for not working? Well, my view, if it was voluntary on their part, I would say you shouldn’t, but it’s involuntary. They don’t have any choice. They can’t go to work.
MR. HOLMAN: Today’s gathering at the White House meets another recent Republican suggestion that the President negotiate personally on a balanced budget plan. At their meeting this afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Dole suggested a quick deal was possible.
SEN. ROBERT DOLE: Because if we can work this out, it could be done yet today.
MR. HOLMAN: The negotiations involving the President are expected to continue into the night.