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WASHINGTON — Washington is racing to avert a partial government shutdown that could lead to furloughs for hundreds of thousands of federal workers in the middle of a national health crisis.
Barring a still-elusive political deal, funding for most federal agencies will expire at midnight on Thursday. Many government functions will grind to a halt in the second federal shutdown in three years.
Museums and national parks will close and roughly 3 in 5 workers — out of a federal civilian workforce of 2.1 million — will be barred from working, said William Hoagland, a former congressional staffer now at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Furloughs could hit 62% of employees at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, an agency at the center of America's fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an agency shutdown plan.
How does this affect COVID-19 response?
Federal workers can stay on the job if being away puts lives or property at risk. But many would have to work without being paid until funding is approved. And those in less critical roles will be furloughed.
The Department of Health and Human Services' shutdown plan pledges the CDC "will continue full support" for public health needs. But the budget headache will still be a distraction.
"The agency is certainly going to be operating at lower efficiency," said David Reich, a former congressional staffer now at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities think tank.
That would come as many public health workers are already stressed. A July CDC survey found high levels of depression, anxiety and other mental health problems among public health workers.
Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease official, told the Washington Post last week that a pandemic was the "worst time" for a shutdown because the government should be working full blast on public health.
How does a shutdown actually happen?
After funding expires, some workers can clock in briefly to set department shutdowns in motion, such as choosing who would be exempt from furlough and adding a shutdown message to government voicemails.
The White House budget office said on Thursday agencies were drawing up plans, which in the past have included suspending processing of applications for firearms and passports.
Much of the government would continue on autopilot, including mailing Social Security pension checks and paying hospital bills for the elderly. Soldiers can still fight wars, but many civilians in the Department of Defense will be furloughed.
Eventually, essential services would suffer. "It's a management nightmare," Hoagland said.
How could a shutdown be avoided, or kept brief?
Congress must pass a spending bill to keep the government from shutting down or to reopen it. Democrats in the House of Representatives last week passed a bill that would renew government funding, but it included raising the cap on federal borrowing.
Republicans object to increasing the debt limit, and they are expected to block the bill in the Senate as soon as Monday.
One way to end the impasse would be for Democrats to drop the debt ceiling measure from the funding legislation. Then it would need to be passed swiftly by both chambers of Congress to avert a shutdown.
The last government shutdown ended after 35 days in January 2019 when several air traffic controllers, who had been working without pay, reportedly called in sick, leading to flight delays and helping to break a political impasse over funding legislation.
Hoagland said the disruption to public health agencies in the middle of a pandemic might keep a shutdown brief.
"The image of that, in the midst of us still fighting this darn virus, would argue for there being a very short shutdown," he said.