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Oct. 17 --Federal employee unions and environmental groups shifted their focus to upcoming budget negotiations after President Barack Obama signed legislation to fund the government through Jan. 15 and end the government shutdown.
The Environmental Protection Agency recalled furloughed workers and began resuming normal activities Oct. 17 following a 16-day shutdown that suspended most agency activities.
The law signed by the president also suspended the debt limit through Feb. 7, avoiding a default on the federal government's debt obligations, and appointed a congressional conference committee to resolve the differences between the House and Senate budget resolutions (H. Con. Res. 25, S. Con. Res. 8).
The conference committee has a deadline of Dec. 13 to report back on a final budget outline.
The White House Office of Management and Budget issued a memorandum Oct. 17 announcing that the employees who were furloughed may return to work.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Vice President Joe Biden greeted employees returning to work at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. McCarthy described the end of the shutdown as “a real celebration” for agency employees who were eager to get back to work.
“We had about 94 percent of our staff out, so that's a pretty big hardship for us,” McCarthy told reporters.
The agency furloughed most of its workforce Oct. 1, including most staff in the Office of Air and Radiation, the Office of Water and the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, limiting the agency's operational capacity during the shutdown.
Federal employee unions welcomed the agreement to reopen the federal government, which provides back pay for furloughed workers but expressed concerns about the short-term nature of the deal.
J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in an Oct. 17 statement that the short-term funding bill to reopen the government is a “brief reprieve” for federal employees. AFGE represents 670,000 federal employees, including employees at the EPA.
“We cannot accept another government shutdown in just a few short weeks,” Cox said. “Federal workers and the public they serve have suffered enough.”
William R. Dougan, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, called on Congress in an Oct. 16 statement to reach an agreement on a long-term budget that provides certainty to federal employees, rather than relying on additional short-term funding measures.
“This era of Congress manufacturing one crisis after another must end,” Dougan said.
Karen Kellen, president of AFGE Council 238, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 16 that she was more optimistic about the budget outlook for the EPA after seeing that the agreement provided funding through Jan. 15.
Kellen said she had feared Congress would agree to a very short-term funding bill to end the shutdown.
AFGE Employees Council 238 is a collection of local unions that represent EPA employees at national headquarters and the agency's regional offices.
Kellen said the next step for Congress must be to reach a budget deal that ends sequestration under the Budget Control Act of 2011. That law calls for a second round of automatic discretionary spending cuts in January to meet the fiscal 2014 spending cap of $967 billion, unless Congress passes legislation to reduce spending or alter the cap.
Kellen said the automatic discretionary spending cuts are “devastating” to the EPA and make it more difficult for employees to do their jobs.
Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an Oct. 16 blog post in response to the end of the shutdown that environmental advocates must prepare to defend environmental spending.
Beinecke said the funding agreement to reopen the government “puts off the big fights,” including negotiations on EPA spending cuts and environmental riders, for a few months.
Beinecke said House Republicans have proposed “draconian cuts” in environmental programs and support continuing sequestration, which she said impairs the capabilities of all federal agencies. The House Appropriations Committee proposed in July to provide the EPA with $5.5 billion in discretionary funding in fiscal 2014, a $2.8 billion, or 34 percent, cut compared to the fiscal 2013 enacted level .
Beinecke said she expects Republicans to support additional cuts to environmental programs in the upcoming budget talks.
Beinecke also highlighted numerous environmental provisions sought by House Republicans in their initial debt limit plan, before focus shifted to the defunding of health care programs authorized under the Affordable Care Act.
House leadership initially planned to include in a debt limit bill provisions that would approve the Keystone XL pipeline, expand onshore and offshore drilling and prohibit the EPA from issuing certain rules that are estimated to cost more than $1 billion a year. House Republicans later shifted away from those demands in debt limit and government funding negotiations.
Dan Hartnett, director of legislative affairs at the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, told Bloomberg BNA in an Oct. 17 e-mail that despite the funding agreement, it is a “very difficult budget environment” for federal agencies, including the EPA.
Hartnett said he is hopeful that the budget conference committee is able to meet spending targets without large cuts to water infrastructure investment. The clean water and drinking water state revolving funds, which provide funding for water infrastructure projects, have been targeted for large reductions in recent years.
The House Appropriations Committee proposed in July to fund the clean water SRF at a level of $250 million in fiscal 2014, a cut of $1.2 billion compared to the fiscal 2013 enacted level. The House proposed to cut the drinking water SRF to $350 million, a reduction of about $550 million from the fiscal 2013 enacted level.
The Senate Appropriations Committee proposed in August to maintain funding for the clean water and drinking water state revolving funds at fiscal 2013 levels.
A nationwide poll commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council, released Oct. 17, found that 65 percent of Americans opposed the suspension of EPA activities during the shutdown.
The poll found that 65 percent of respondents opposed the shutdown's interference with the EPA's development of standards limiting carbon pollution from power plants, and 71 percent opposed the shutdown preventing EPA inspectors from monitoring air and water pollution.
David Goldston, director of government affairs at NRDC, said during an Oct. 17 media call that the poll results should serve as a “clear warning” to House Republicans in advance of scheduled budget negotiations.
Goldston said the poll indicated that most Americans wanted the government to reopen and most Americans support EPA operations.
The poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling, surveyed 825 Americans over the Oct. 11 weekend, prior to the end of the government shutdown.
Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, told reporters the poll showed voters weren't happy about the effects the shutdown had on EPA operations.
“Voters are not happy that the EPA was shut down, and they certainly won't be happy with any future efforts to hinder its work,” Jensen said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Ambrosio in Washington at email@example.com
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The OMB memo announcing that furloughed federal employees may return to work is available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/memoranda/2014/m-14-01.pdf.
More information on the NRDC poll is available at http://www.nrdc.org/media/2013/131017.asp.
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