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Obama to make public plea in Maryland

President Barack Obama will make his case for reopening the federal government at a construction firm in Maryland on Thursday as a political solution to end the 2-day-old shutdown remains elusive.

Obama will visit the Rockville office of Baltimore-based M. Luis Construction one of the state's largest minority- and woman-owned companies — in an effort to cast the impasse as harmful to business and put public pressure on Republicans to strike a deal.

"It's very appropriate, in fact, necessary for the president to be talking to the country about what's at stake here," said Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who represents Rockville. "The president is working hard to try to accelerate job growth, and that means getting the government open."

Lawmakers made little progress Wednesday on a compromise, even as the next fiscal deadline neared. The Treasury Department estimates that the nation will hit its debt limit on Oct. 17. Without congressional action to raise the $16.7 trillion ceiling, the government will default on its obligations.

Democratic and Republican congressional leaders emerged Wednesday evening from a White House meeting with Obama no closer to a deal that could return roughly 800,000 furloughed federal employees to work or address the debt ceiling.

State officials, meanwhile, warned that an extended shutdown would soon begin to harm a wider swath of residents than just federal workers and park visitors. The head of the state's budget office said it would run out of money for a federal program that provides food to low-income mothers and their infants in about two weeks.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, helps to feed about 150,000 people in Maryland. Advocates for the poor have been warning for days about the potential cuts to the program, which assists 9 million people nationwide.

"That is one program that the government has said they're not going to provide funding for," Department of Budget and Management Secretary T. Eloise Foster said Wednesday.

M. Luis Construction, which won $7.5 million in contracting business with the state in 2012, is an asphalt and construction company that employs 200 people and generates $60 million in annual revenue. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew visited the Rockville office in June.

Republicans dismissed the president's visit as a political stunt.

"The president should be traveling to Capitol Hill to deal with the issue at hand," said Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, the state's only Republican in Congress.

Economists have predicted that a long shutdown could have a particularly harmful impact in Maryland. The state is home to more than 314,000 federal workers, including 286,000 civilians and 28,000 service members. That's roughly 10 percent of the state's overall 3.1 million workforce.

State officials estimate that another 251,000 people work for federal contractors.

That's why several lawmakers representing the state are sponsoring legislation to reimburse federal workers for lost wages when the government reopens. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin, both Maryland Democrats, organized an event on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to try to build support for the measure.

"These are real people — they're not numbers," he said. "Real people's lives have been affected by this government shutdown."

Employees have been paid retroactively after past shutdowns, but it takes an act of Congress to do so.

Senate Democrats and House Republicans mainly talked past each other on Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said his caucus would negotiate a broad, long-term budget fix only if Republicans approve a short-term spending bill now.

The House, meanwhile, passed a series of bills that would fund federal parks, some veterans' programs and the National Institutes of Health. Democrats are opposed to the piecemeal approach.

"They will not negotiate," House Speaker John Boehner said after meeting with Obama and other congressional leaders. He described the conversation as "nice."

Many safety-net programs such as Medicaid and Social Security will continue through the shutdown. Maryland will cover the cost of food stamps and federal energy programs until the end of October, state officials said. But Foster said it is unclear what will happen with WIC.

The program costs about $2.3 million a week to run in Maryland.

Maryland officials were also grappling with the anticipated impact on the state's economy.

The governor's office has estimated that the shutdown will cost the Maryland economy nearly $15 million per day in business and $5 million per day in tax revenue.

Comptroller Peter Franchot said a third of Maryland's economy — roughly $90 billion annually — is tied to the federal government.

"I describe it as a calamity wrapped around a train wreck," he said, "unless cooler heads prevail."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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