America is preparing for a federal government shutdown from Saturday that could see 800,000 staff suspended and hundreds of agencies, from the national parks to the tax office, disrupted or closed.
The initial impact of a shutdown would be felt by Americans on spring breaks and international tourists, who would find attractions closed on Saturday, such as Washington’s Smithsonian museums, the Statue of Liberty and the former Alcatraz prison, as well as scores of national parks. Essential services such as air traffic control, border authorities and security services would be maintained as would postal services, but many others would either cease or be severely reduced.
Congress, the Pentagon and many other government agencies would also be affected. In anticipation of widespread disruption Congress has divided staff into two camps: “essential” workers, who would be expected to turn up for work as normal on Monday, and “non-essential” staff, who would be told to stay at home. To be deemed non-essential would be a blow to the morale of many in status-conscious Washington.
In a further indignity, staff face having their BlackBerries and laptops shut down. There are more than a million federally owned BlackBerries.
Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of the White House’s office of management and budget, said the impact of the shutdown would be uneven. “National parks, national forests and the Smithsonian Institution would all be closed. The National Institutes of Health Clinical Centre will not take new patients, and no new clinical trials will start,” he said.
Troops stationed overseas, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, would not receive their wages, but welfare recipients would continue to be paid.
American holidaymakers who have left it late to apply for passports could be in trouble as would foreigners hoping for visas for the US.
There is confusion over whether non-essential staff would be paid after the shutdown for the days they are absent. The government said they would not be, though after previous shutdowns staff were able to recover lost pay.
Obama, after a late-night meeting at the White House with Boehner and the Senate leader, Harry Reid, sounded optimistic that a deal could be reached. He said staff from both sides would work through the night to bridge the remaining differences. “I am not prepared to express wild optimism,” the president said. “But I think we are further along today than we were yesterday.” He is expecting an early answer from theRepublicans to prevent the steps necessary to impose a shutdown being put into action.
The Democrats said agreement had been reached on about 70% of the issues. A senior Democrat in the House, Steny Hoyer, told NBC “there’s no deal yet, unfortunately”. He said he was embarrassed about the country being on the brink of a shutdown, but “you can’t negotiate on the basis that one side gives 100% and the other gives zero”.
The Republicans want a cut in the federal deficit of $40bn (£24bn). The Democrats made a compromise offer of $34.5bn on Wednesday. The new sticking points are mainly the areas where the Republicans want cuts – abortion programmes and environmental protection – on which the Democrats refuse to give way.
Obama has postponed a trip to Indiana, where he planned to make a speech, because of the budget crisis. He said he wanted to be on hand for any further negotiations.