Connecticut Congressmen prepare for federal shutdown

WASHINGTON–Rep. Chris Murphy’s staff is contacting all the major federal agencies, to find out what services will be disrupted and what will continue. Rep. John Larson’s aides are preparing a message for his congressional website, with detailed information for constituents on how the shut-down may impact them.

And Rep. Jim Himes is trying to figure out which, among his 17 congressional aides, he should deem as “essential” employees. Anyone labeled “essential” can keep working through a government blackout. Anyone who isn’t will be furloughed, forced to turn their cell phones off and ignore incoming work emails.

“We’re doing a lot of figuring,” said Himes, a 4th District Democrat.

After a late-night session at the White House with top congressional leaders, President Barack Obama said there was still no agreement on how to fund the government for the rest of fiscal year 2011.

“We’re now less than 30 hours away from the government shutting down,” Obama said. He said he was not willing to “express wild optimism” about a breakthrough. But because preparations for a shutdown were already in motion, he said, “my hope is… that I’ll be able to announce to the American people sometime relatively early in the day that a shutdown has been averted.”

With the clock ticking down to midnight on Friday, when the current budget law expires, Connecticut lawmakers also said they hoped a shutdown could still be avoided. All the same, they were girding for the possibility of legislative chaos in Washington and constituent outrage at home.

“We’re going to get bombarded with calls,” said Larson. The 1st District Democrat said he has already told all his staffers they would be considered “essential” if the government does shutdown at midnight Friday.

“These are all people who… are counting on a job, who have mortgage payments, who have families,” Larson said. “You can’t, because of the whim of an ideological fervor that’s taken over the Republicans… that shouldn’t impact the lives of other people.”

In addition, Larson said, “now is not the time to be furloughing people,” since many constituents will be seeking information about their Social Security benefits, passport applications, and other matters.

Similarly, Murphy, D-5th District, said he plans to keep his Washington and Connecticut offices up and running, even if lawmakers fail to agree on a spending plan to keep the federal government open past Friday night.

“Our office is going to have to stay open in order to deal with the legislative process here and a potential avalanche of constituent issues back home,” Murphy said. “I haven’t made any determinations on whether anyone is going to be furloughed or whether we’ll keep everyone on. But we’re clearly going to need to be open for business.”

Jeremy Kirkpatrick, a spokesman for Sen. Joseph Lieberman, said his boss would rely on a “significantly reduced and skeletal staff” if there’s a shutdown. He noted the office will not be able to fulfill constituent requests for Capitol tours, flags, or other such things. But they would try to make sure people had all the basic information they needed.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, is the only current U.S. House member from Connecticut who also served during the last shutdown in 1995. In an interview in February, DeLauro recalled that public anger during the last shutdown was “off the charts.” She said her office was inundated with calls from constituents who needed visas for travel, veterans who needed benefit applications processed, and vacationers who had plans to visit the National Parks. “It was unbelievable,” DeLauro said.

At the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, the atmosphere veered between uncertainty, tension, and suspense. Everyone from the Senate’s elevator operators to congressional aides to the House door keepers were wondering if they would have to work during a shutdown–or be sent home and miss a paycheck.

Reporters, meanwhile, hung on every utterance and email blast from the two key congressional players at the center of the budget fight, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner, trying to discern fresh hints of compromise or intransigence.

After a 90-minute evening session at the White House, Reid and Boehner issued a joint statement.

“We have narrowed the issues, however, we have not yet reached an agreement,” the two lawmakers said. “We will continue to work through the night to attempt to resolve our remaining differences.”

The White House has said that an estimated 800,000 federal workers would be furloughed, along with thousands of government contractors. “Millions more people will be significantly inconvenienced,” Obama said after his 8 p.m. meeting with Reid and Boehner.

Across the country, national parks and popular tourist sites, such as the Statute of Liberty and the Washington Monument, would be closed. Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits would not be interrupted, with payments still being processed and mailed out. But details are still emerging about how other programs will be affected.

In Connecticut, preparations were also under way to weather a potential federal shutdown storm. Gov. Dannel Malloy’s director of operations, Alvin Wilson, said the state has enough federal money in the pipeline, along with its own cash reserves, to keep transportation projects on track, unemployment benefits flowing, and public health programs funded.

“In the short-term, there should be no impact on the state,” Wilson said. “We’re not in a panic, but the question that remains is, what if it’s not a short-term shutdown?”

Malloy’s staff identified the departments that would be most heavily impacted–including Social Services, Transportation, and Public Health. The heads of each of those departments are now serving on a task force, that has been charged with determining how the state would be affected if there’s a protracted shutdown and what the turning point would be.

Wilson said the task force expects to release a report early next week.