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Marylanders brace for possible U.S. government shutdown

Rino Imperiale has a message for Washington as the possibility looms of a second government shutdown in two years.

"Time to be adults," he said. "Time to find solutions. Time to stop the bickering. Time to do what's best for the country."

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Imperiale, a retired naval officer who works at Aberdeen Proving Ground, is one of Maryland's nearly 300,000 civilian federal employees. They make up 10 percent of the state workforce. And as Congress and the White House charge toward a repeat of the 2013 budget stalemate that led to a partial government shutdown, many face the possibility of furloughs and missed paychecks.

Despite promises that it wouldn't come to this, the next fiscal crisis could arrive as soon as Oct. 1. The sides have yet to agree on a budget to fund the government for the fiscal year that starts on that date. With House members having left Washington last week for summer recess and senators soon to follow, that leaves only about 10 legislative days next month to fix the problem, and there are no viable solutions in sight.

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Imperiale, who works with a team that searches the globe for emerging technologies that could help the U.S. military, said the last shutdown was hard on his family, and left a tremendous workload for him and his colleagues when they returned to their jobs two weeks later.

"You try to gear up for it, but it's hard," he said. "It came down to the last minute. Financially, it's devastating. It throws you off-kilter. You have to dip into your savings. You have to move things around."

President Barack Obama has signaled his intention to bust, once and for all, the severe spending caps known as sequestration. He has vowed to reject any Republican appropriations bills that increase government funding for the military without also boosting domestic programs important to Democrats such as Head Start for preschoolers.

The GOP-controlled Congress is also digging in. When Republicans took over the Senate in January, giving them control of both chambers for the first time since 2007, leaders promised to run Congress responsibly and prevent another shutdown. But their spending proposals are defying the president's veto threat by bolstering defense accounts and leaving social-welfare programs to be slashed.

The 2016 presidential race is compounding the problem.

Several Republican senators vying for the party nomination are hoping to use the budget process to grab headlines and push their agendas, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's campaign to defund Planned Parenthood and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's attempt to stop the nuclear deal with Iran.

House Republicans, meanwhile, want to overturn Obama's immigration actions. Any such policy rider attached to a budget would be a deal-breaker.

The 16-day government shutdown in 2013 came as Cruz led Republicans in a failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It was highly unpopular.

Republican leaders are resigned to another showdown. House Speaker John A. Boehner allowed his majority to leave a day early for the long August recess. The Ohio Republican predicted Congress would have little choice next month but to pass a short-term budget extension to keep the government open.

"We'll deal with it in September," he said.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said "this sort of brinksmanship has no place in our legislative process."

"My constituents are dismayed by the prospect of another government shutdown — and rightfully so," Cummings said.

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"As we saw in 2013, the effects of government shutdowns extend beyond the millions of federal employees who are furloughed. They include slowed reimbursements to medical providers, shuttered national parks, scientific research efforts put on hold, work stoppages for millions of government contractors, including many in Maryland, and self-inflicted economic productivity losses."

It has been long understood that at the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, a fresh round of sequester cuts is due to take effect, affecting virtually all areas of government spending.

Sequester cuts that are due to take effect Oct. 1 would affect all federal agencies based in Maryland, including the National Institutes of Health, the Census Bureau and Social Security Administration.

Ben Stump, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, said the lack of a budget deal and the possibility of a reduction in funding "stalls our current momentum in improving services we provide to the American public."

"Anything less than sustained, adequate and timely funding," he said, "will interrupt the progress we have made."

Wendy Spencer, who runs the Corporation for National and Community Service, said a shutdown also would reach into 200 locations across Baltimore — including classrooms, food banks and homeless shelters — where 2,000 AmeriCorps and Senior Corps participants and others serve vulnerable people.

"We don't want to strip these nonprofits and community organizations of the very thing they need most in tough times," she said.

"When you have national service participants in 60,000 locations, you can imagine what a shutdown does to nonprofits. In some cases, it's crippling to them. They are counting on this dedicated support day in and day out."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, vice chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said "it's time to end sequester with a new budget deal."

"That's how we'll protect our national security, keep promises to veterans and seniors, meet compelling human needs like education and health care, and invest in infrastructure and innovation to create jobs and prepare us for the future."

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said GOP leaders are operating without a "sense of urgency."

"The Republicans seem to be paddling down the river calmly, even though there is this big waterfall ahead," he said.

Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County — the state's only Republican in Congress — said the Senate is the problem. The House, he said through a spokeswoman, has passed responsible spending bills.

"It's inappropriate for the Senate to hold hardworking Americans hostage because they want to continue Washington's pattern of reckless spending," Harris spokeswoman Shelby Hodgkins said in a statement.

Other members of the delegation focused on what they said is the damage caused by sequestration. Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes, both of Baltimore County, said the automatic spending cuts are dangerous for the country.

"We need to take the president of the United States and the leadership of House and Senate and put them in a room with no water and no food and not let them out until they have a plan to repeal this sequestration," Ruppersberger said.

It's not just the budget. A major highway funding program is on a temporary fix that runs out Oct. 29. And the nation's debt ceiling will need to be lifted by late fall to avoid a damaging credit default.

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The confluence of these deadlines raises the prospects for an all-encompassing year-end accord that could resolve all or most of the issues, but it also increases the risk of a crisis; there has been no visible progress toward any big budget deal.

"We know it's coming," said Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas Republican, the majority whip. "We're going to leave that fight until September, October, November, December."

Obama, in a private meeting with Democrats at the White House in early July, called on the party's senators to filibuster the GOP's spending bills and prevent him from having to veto them. While many of the Republican bills have passed the House, they have not yet been put fully to the test in the Senate. Only a defense spending bill has come up for a Senate vote, and it was filibustered.

Democrats say Republicans are shirking their responsibilities.

"We know that Republicans are experienced in shutting down the government," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. "It has been clear for months that the only way Congress will arrive at a responsible budget is by Republicans and Democrats, Senate and House, sitting down together and finding a path forward. Now is the time to negotiate. Not in September, not in October — now."

Republicans and Democrats agreed to the sequester cuts in 2011 as a last-ditch solution to a budget impasse between Obama and Boehner after Republicans took control of the House. The cuts were written to be so unappealing that they would compel both sides to reach a more palatable deal. They did not.

A bipartisan deal in 2013 staved off the most painful reductions until this fall, but lawmakers have waited until the last minute to address the problem.

"That's the way everything around here works," said Sen. Jim Risch, an Idaho Republican. "It's like a marriage or a business or anything else — money is always an issue. Republicans and Democrats are hard-wired differently when it comes to money."

With new Republican majorities, the House and Senate passed budget blueprints this year, but the appropriation bills required to put those fiscal goals into action are nowhere near becoming law.

Boehner was forced to halt consideration of his party's bills after the shooting of nine black churchgoers in South Carolina sparked a national debate over public displays of the Confederate battle flag. Southern-state Republicans tried to add protections for the flag to the spending bills, but other lawmakers objected.

The speaker said last week that the best option would be for Congress to pursue a stopgap resolution to keep the government running from Oct. 1 until a broader agreement could be reached.

But even approving a temporary spending measure could prove difficult if lawmakers try to use it as a vehicle for other pursuits. Rep. Tim Huelskamp a conservative Republican from Kansas who often bucks GOP leadership, said passing a short-term measure was "going to be really difficult" without votes on other issues. And the longer the government shutdown threat lingers, the more it becomes tangled in other year-end deadlines.

The Treasury Department has said that Congress will need to raise the nation's debt limit to continue paying the bills — a controversial vote for lawmakers in recent years, especially as the debt load now tops $18 trillion. At the same time, lawmakers face a vote next month on the multinational nuclear agreement with Iran, and in September they will host Pope Francis, who will be the first pontiff to address Congress.

Asked what lawmakers were doing to avoid fiscal stalemate, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Repuiblican, blamed the minority party.

"The Democrats want to shut the government down," he said, "but that's not the place we're going."

Pressed on whether there was a plan to prevent that outcome, McCarthy demurred.

"I don't know of any talks," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.

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