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Shutdown over, focus turns to next deadline

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As the late budget agreement cleared the way for federal workers across Maryland to go back to work and government offices to reopen Thursday, attention in Washington shifted to the next problem: striking a new deal before funding runs out again in three months.

The group of lawmakers that is now charged with developing a broader agreement on spending, taxes and entitlement reform met informally to discuss the work ahead but offered no sign that the long-sought but elusive grand bargain has become any more attainable.

"The question is, will the Republicans have learned the right lesson?" said Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, one of 29 members named to the panel. "Will they have learned that you don't get your way by shutting down the government and not paying the bills?"

Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, voted for the deal late Wednesday to fund the government until Jan. 15 and lift the debt ceiling until Feb. 7.

Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, Maryland's only Republican in Congress, voted against it. He predicted "we're going to be in the same place three to four months from now."

"Over the past three years … it's always a last-minute deal and there's always something tied to it," he said.

In Maryland, federal workers and those who rely on their services expressed relief that the 16-day shutdown had ended and the state's federal agencies, offices and national parks were back in business.

The deal came just in time for Marie Burpeau, who planned her visit Thursday to Fort McHenry in Baltimore months ago.

"I was really devastated when I heard it might not be open," the 88-year-old North Carolina woman said. A self-described history buff, she spoke excitedly about visiting the scene of the battle that inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner" as son Kemp Burpeau pushed her wheelchair.

Maryland is home to about 300,000 federal workers. Tens of thousands were sent home without pay during the shutdown that began Oct. 1. Under the deal approved late Wednesday, they will now receive back pay for the days they missed. They're also on track to get a 1 percent raise beginning in January. The increase would follow a three-year wage freeze.

Danielle Johnson, who has worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs for seven years, called the shutdown "an eye-opener.

"I've never been furloughed before, and I didn't know what to expect," the 41-year-old Baltimore woman said. "It's hard because you don't know what you can do. You can't go get another job. It's just waiting."

Richard D'Anna, a senior adviser at the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, was not furloughed. But the Freeland man said the deal still came as a relief.

"Funding would have run out this week," D'Anna said. "This came just in time."

In a lengthy and somber address from the White House, President Barack Obama said the shutdown had "inflicted completely unnecessary" damage to the U.S. economy — Standard & Poor's estimated the loss at $24 billion — and Washington must stop lurching from one crisis to another.

"Disagreement cannot mean dysfunction. It can't degenerate into hatred," Obama said. "The American people's hopes and dreams are what matters, not ours. Our obligations are to them."

The president also spoke directly to federal workers, underscoring concerns that employee morale might have been hurt by the episode. He thanked employees for their service and welcomed them back to work.

"What you do is important. It matters," he said. "And don't let anybody else tell you different."

Obama laid out a legislative agenda for the coming months that included passing the stalled farm bill and an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws. It was unclear whether the bruising budget battles would help or hurt those efforts.

At the Capitol, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said they would search for "common ground" as they try to forge a longer-term deal.

The Senate, led by Democrats, and the House, controlled by Republicans, passed very different budgets months ago but have yet to try to reconcile them in legislation the president could sign. In the absence of such a budget, lawmakers have funded the government through a succession of short-term continuing resolutions, such as the measure approved Wednesday.

Across the country Thursday, federal employees began streaming back to work, agencies that suspended some or all of their services rumbled back to life and the National Zoo in Washington turned its Panda Cam back on, allowing Americans to catch up with Mei Xing and her cub, Tai Shan.

The crowds returned Thursday morning to Baltimore's Penn Station, where area federal workers and contractors board trains to Washington.

On the first day of the shutdown, Hana Himelstein drove from her Upper Park Heights neighborhood to the Hmart grocery store in Catonsville to buy a "huge" sack of rice.

Himelstein, 52, a contract reader for a federal attorney, described the purchase as insurance against the "chutzpah" of Congress, its brinkmanship and the possibility that putting food on her family's plates might become difficult.

"I have four college-age kids, a blind husband and a mortgage," Himelstein said as she waited to catch a train to her first day back on the job. "I don't have time for games."

As a contractor, not a federal employee, Himelstein will not receive back pay.

"Hopefully we'll regroup," she said. For now, she was "relieved that the uncertainty is over and things can return to something resembling normal."

The shutdown was not Scott Sherlock's first. The 54-year-old Long Green man, an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency, had just left a private firm for the federal government when he was furloughed in 1995.

Sherlock called the experience a "source of great consternation" but said furloughs remain "unusual."

At Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, rangers were elated to get back to work. The park was run during the shutdown by an unpaid skeletal staff of law enforcement rangers and maintenance workers.

"It's like Christmas morning coming back," said Vince Vaise, chief of interpretation at Fort McHenry, with a wide smile on his face.

The 43-year-old Linthicum man said he relied on savings to support his family, which includes two young children.

"It's nice not to have to worry so much anymore," he said.

Tina Orcutt, the park superintendent, said she had to rein in her spending, particularly on food.

"I also had to figure out which bills I can pay now, which ones I can put on hold," the Woodstock woman said.

A mother of three, she said she spent her time away focused on her children — and the news.

"It was great to be able to do the stay-at-home mom thing," she said, "but there was the anxiety of when I'm going to get paid again."

Baltimore Sun reporter Nayana Davis contributed to this article.

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