Two weeks into a government shutdown that has hamstrung federal agencies and sent large sections of their employees home without pay, Congress is heading for another last-minute showdown — this time over raising the government’s borrowing authority, known as the debt ceiling.
Senate leaders say they are optimistic a deal could be reached Wednesday that would prevent a default and end the government shutdown.
The White House immediately rejected a bill prepared Tuesday by the Republican-controlled House. The bill would make changes to the Affordable Care Act, a nonstarter with the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Barack Obama.
“I think we’re going to be right up against the edge of Thursday,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) in a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon. “And that is assuming everything goes well and some of the destructive forces don’t try to object or throw procedural hurdles.”
Democratic senators say hitting the debt ceiling as large swaths of the federal government remain closed would seemingly add injury to insult.
“How humiliating is this that the federal government — already shut down for two weeks — could be heading for a default,” said Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) from the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon.
‘Uncharted territory’ for feds
Federal workers are already coping with forced time off, slow-downs and bottlenecks in their work and the prospect of delayed paychecks stemming from the two-week shutdown.
But a debt default could pose entirely new challenges for the federal workforce.
“I think we’re in uncharted territory,” Warner said. “We still have to get the federal workforce back (from the shutdown) and paid — and I’m a big supporter of that. But I’ve also got to tell you, they’re still going to cost the taxpayer money because we’ve lost time. We’re still not sure that all the government contractors will be paid and what about all the private businesses?”
Warner is a co-sponsor of a Senate bill that would ensure furloughed federal workers receive backpay once the shutdown ends. The House unanimously approved a similar measure about a week ago, but it has faced opposition from some Republicans in the Senate and has essentially moved to the back burner.
The looming debt deadline means the backpay bill will likely languish a while longer.
“Before we can get to appropriations and our the budget, we have to raise the debt ceiling,” Mikulski said. “If we fail or falter to address this, the United States of America will irrevocably be affected,” Mikulski said.
Warner decried the constant stream of budget crises that have plagued Congress the last few years.
“We went through the first debt ceiling debacle, we went through the supercommittee, we went through the fiscal cliff,” he said. “And every one of those times at the 11th hour, something happened. I feel a little bit like the boy who cried wolf; this time the wolf may really be at the door.”