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Essential employees caught in the middle as 'stealth shutdown' lingers on

WASHINGTON – The government shutdown you might not notice lingered into its second week Saturday with no end in sight. And one reason it might last longer is the fact that people aren't noticing.

This shutdown, unlike some others, leaves only about 25 percent of the federal government without funding. What's more, many of the agencies that are affected – such as Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration – employ personnel who are considered essential. That means those federal workers have continued working, but without pay.

The result? Something of a stealth shutdown.

Most of the federal government is fully functioning as usual, while part of it limps along without funding and with employees who hope that, as usual, they will eventually get back the pay they're earning once Congress passes a bill to fund their agencies.

And even employees of those unfunded agencies have been surprisingly silent, as has been the general public.

"A few calls have come in" complaining about the shutdown, said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat. "But nothing nearing a high volume nature."

About 15,000 people in New York's seven westernmost counties work for the federal government. But congressional staffers could not estimate how many of those workers were furloughed or working without pay because of the shutdown.

Most of the federal government agencies that interact with the public regularly are continuing to operate.

The Postal Service, funded through its own revenues, continues to deliver the mail.

Social Security and Medicare, each funded largely through trust funds rather than annual appropriations, keep doling out payments and paying their bills

And some of the largest government operations – from the military to the veterans health system to the Department of Health and Human Services – operate under bills passed by Congress that will keep them fully funded through September 2019. Three smaller cabinet agencies – Education, Energy and Labor – are fully funded, too, as is Congress.

But the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Agriculture remain unfunded. So are the Departments of Treasury, State, Interior, Transportation and Commerce. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is out of cash, too.

But out of cash doesn't necessarily mean out of business. Federal employees whose work is considered essential must keep working. So along with border patrol and TSA agents, federal prison guards and FBI agents and federal prosecutors are on the job without pay.

Other unfunded agencies are prioritizing their work to provide their most essential services while putting less timely tasks aside. The National Weather Service, part of the Commerce Department, is still forecasting the weather, but foregoing long-term research. And the Agriculture Department is continuing food inspections and has enough money to issue food stamp payments, in January at least.

In total, approximately 800,000 federal workers are either working without pay or sitting home while on furlough. J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, isn't happy about it.

“This is a dereliction of duty by Congress and the president, and it is forcing the men and women who safeguard our country to work for free – while hundreds of thousands more get sent home without pay," said Cox, whose union covers more federal workers than any other, including TSA agents, prison guards, doctors and food inspectors.

So which federal employees are sitting at home without pay? Those that do work that isn't considered necessary to the daily functioning of the nation: economists, census planners and most employees of the National Park Service, for example.

But the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site in Buffalo, a National Park Service site, continues to operate and will do so even if the shutdown lasts months, said its executive director, Stanton H. Hudson Jr.. That's because the site gets part of its funding from a local foundation.

Could the partial shutdown last months? No one in Washington seems to know.

But both sides seem firm in their convictions.

President Trump, a Republican, is refusing to go along with any federal funding bill that doesn't set aside $5 billion for his long-promised wall at the Mexican border.

And one of his strongest supporters, Rep. Chris Collins, noted that the Republican House backed a bill to do just that, only to be stymied by Senate Democrats led by Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.

"While I will never support a shutdown, it is my hope Congress and President Trump can work together to find a bipartisan solution that effectively secures our borders and opens the government in a timely manner,” said Collins, a Clarence Republican.

Schumer, meantime, blames the stalemate on Trump's insistence that any funding bill include that $5 billion for the wall – a proposal that most Senate Democrats, who have the power to block the bill, think is wasteful.

"We’ve sent three options to the White House about how to end this shutdown today, tomorrow, or the next day, one of which unanimously passed the United States Senate and would have passed in the House," said Schumer, a New York Democrat. "Unfortunately, the president chose to derail it by only focusing on proposals he knows can’t pass the Senate."

The dynamics of the stalemate will shift if, as expected, the shutdown lasts past next Thursday. That's the day when Democrats will take control of the House, meaning they will have more leverage in their talks with Trump.

At that point, any solution might have to include border security funding along with immigration reform legislation that includes elements both parties want, said Rep. Tom Reed, a Republican from Corning. He outlined a possible compromise that would combine a solution for the "Dreamers" – undocumented young people brought to America illegally by their parents – along with reforms to the nation's asylum and immigrant farm-labor policies.

As the Republican co-chair of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, Reed has long pushed for such an agreement. And he said it could well happen, even if the current shutdown is so narrow that it's not exactly pressuring anyone to make a deal.

Reed said he hasn't heard much from constituents about the shutdown.

"I can honestly tell you it hasn't been as vocal as the past shutdowns," Reed said. "But just because people aren't talking about it doesn't mean it's acceptable."

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