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Federal workers fret over debt talks

As the president and the speaker of the House intensified their debate over raising the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling Monday night, the real world impact was reflected among Maryland federal workers like Jacqueline Hamilton. After 44 years of working for the Social Security Administration, Hamilton is understandably concerned about cuts that may be coming to the federal work force.

But she's also worried about senior citizens and the disabled who rely on Social Security to make ends meet. If her position is eliminated, or portions of the government shut down because money runs out, she said it's not clear whether those checks will be delivered.

"I'm just concerned about people who have no other income," said the 62-year-old Baltimore resident, who is also an official with the American Federation of Government Employees. "If they can't reach me then ... benefits can't be paid."

Hamilton was one of about 150 federal workers who attended a Monday evening rally on the lawn of the Social Security Administration's Woodlawn headquarters to press Washington to find an agreement on raising the debt limit without making significant cuts to safety net programs — which include Medicare and Medicaid — or the federal work force.

In Washington, the brinkmanship over the debt limit continued as President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner addressed the nation in extraordinary back-to-back television appearances. Obama took aim at a Republican plan introduced Monday that would extend the debt limit for only a few months.

"That is no way to run the greatest country on Earth," the president said, predicting that a temporary delay would simply invite a similar stalemate in a few months. "It is a dangerous game we've never played before, and we can't afford to play it now."

Boehner argued that it is Obama who has failed to compromise and suggested the president is making a political calculation by demanding an extension of the debt ceiling past next year's presidential election.

"The sad truth is that the president wanted a blank check six months ago, and he wants a blank check today," the Ohio Republican said. "That is just not going to happen."

Both leaders continued to be pulled away from the center by factions in their parties. Conservative Republicans quickly argued on Monday that Boehner's plan doesn't go far enough. Some Democrats, including union members at Monday's rally in Woodlawn, are opposed to any entitlement cuts.

Holding signs that read "hands off Social Security," the labor union leaders who organized the event noted that they had supported Obama in his 2008 election partly because of his promise to maintain funding for those programs. Now, many of those supporters are angry that the White House has contemplated entitlement cuts to reduce spiraling federal budget deficits.

In one of the many plans that has emerged in recent weeks, the White House agreed to make $650 billion in reductions to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security along with $1 trillion in cuts to discretionary spending. Republicans in Congress, many of whom were elected last year on promises to reduce the size of government, have said they want to make even deeper reductions before signing off on a debt-limit increase.

"All right, Mr. President, it's show time," John Gage, president of AFGE, boomed into the makeshift public-address system at the rally. "We put you in there, President Obama, and we're going to keep you in there. But don't turn your back on Social Security."

The rally came just hours after congressional leaders unveiled dueling proposals to raise the debt ceiling, setting up a potential showdown between the House and Senate with only days remaining before the Aug. 2 deadline. U.S. Treasury Department officials have warned that the country will not be able to pay all of its obligations after that date.

Boehner has proposed raising the debt ceiling in two steps. The first would be a $1 trillion increase to let the United States continue to borrow money for about six months. A second increase would be contingent on an additional roughly $2 trillion in cuts that would be identified by a bipartisan commission.

Democrats, who want a plan that will raise the debt ceiling high enough to last through next year, have balked at that idea.

"The American people do not want to play Russian roulette with our economy every six months," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County lawmaker and the top-ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said of the GOP plan. "This is a dangerous, reckless path."

House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, of Virginia, responded in a statement that his party "would have much preferred to vote to increase the debt limit only once, but the president and his party continued to make demands which we cannot meet — namely tax increases."

Senate Democrats separately proposed a $2.7 trillion deficit-reduction plan that would carry the debt limit through next year without raising taxes. But Republicans note that the measure counts about $1 trillion in savings from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan even though those reductions have already been anticipated.

With both parties still entrenched, the path forward remained unclear.

Given its economic ties to the federal government, Maryland is likely to be disproportionally affected regardless of the outcome. There are more than 286,810 federal workers living in Maryland, census data show, and local companies were responsible for about $60 billion in federal contracts in 2010.

Though details are fluid, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Vice President Joe Biden earlier this year had considered requiring federal workers to chip in more for their retirement plans. Earlier Republican proposals called for requiring federal employees to contribute more toward their health insurance plans.

Several Social Security workers at Monday's union rally said they were on edge about the changes that are likely in store for federal employees, but also were nervous for beneficiaries enrolled in various entitlement programs. Maryland is home to 850,361 Social Security recipients, 794,039 Medicare beneficiaries and 753,100 people on Medicaid.

"People are asking on the phone about whether they'll receive a check," said Sonia Wilson, who works in one of the Social Security Administration's call centers. The 60-year-old Baltimore County resident said she isn't exactly sure what to tell them. "They're concerned because they don't have food or medicine if they don't get a check."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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