- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2011

As Washington and the nation brace for a possible government shutdown next week, federal agencies are scrambling to determine how many “essential” workers will stay on the job.

In Oklahoma, a federal employees union has notified the government that it wants its civilian workers at a military base deemed essential, given that the country is fighting two wars. In the District of Columbia, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has crafted legislation to make sure a shutdown won’t halt city services.

Across the government, bureaucrats are trying to decide just who qualifies as essential personnel, earning the right to continue working even as the rest of the government gets furloughed.

During the most recent federal shutdowns, some agencies kept more than half their staffs on the job.

The federal government is funded through March 4, and congressional Democrats and Republicans have failed to reach an agreement on an extension.

**FILE** House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, puts up a chart on Feb. 14 while delivering the GOP response to President Obama's budget submission for fiscal 2012 on Capitol Hill. The nation faces a possible government shutdown if Democrats and Republicans have not agreed by March 4 on an extension for funding the federal government. (Associated Press)
**FILE** House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, puts up a ... more >

The standoff raises echoes of the 1995-96 government shutdown that cost newly ascendant congressional Republicans dearly.

However, the public of 2011 is closely divided on who is trying to avoid a government shutdown.

According to a Gallup poll taken Tuesday and released Thursday, Republicans have an edge — albeit a statistically insignificant one — over President Obama and congressional Democrats on the matter of which party is “doing the better job in the current efforts to agree on a new federal budget.”

Among the 1,004 adults surveyed, 42 percent said Republicans are doing better, compared with 39 percent for Democrats, though that edge is within the poll’s error margin of 4 percentage points.

If a deal isn’t struck by the deadline, thousands of government employees throughout the nation — including National Park Service rangers and Washington bureaucrats — could be told to stay home.

Essential services such as air traffic control and overseas combat would continue in full operating mode, but just what else is “essential” is a matter of debate.

The American Federation of Government Employees has asked the government to exclude its civilian workers at Oklahoma’s Tinker Air Force Base from any furloughs resulting from a shutdown, saying its members are vital to national security.

“The difference between the government shutdown of 1995-96 and now is that our country is fighting in two wars,” said AFGE Local 916 Legislative Director R. Bryan Jackson. “The mission for all Tinker employees is to maintain war-fighter readiness. We cannot let a funding issue jeopardize the safety of the men and women fighting overseas.”

The Defense Department, like other agencies, did not comment specifically on how many of its personnel would continue working worldwide during a shutdown. But a spokesman said the department would “do everything we have to do to continue to support the deployed troops.”

“The department must also continue many other operations necessary for the safety of human life and protection of property,” said spokeswoman Cmdr. Kathleen Kesler. “These types of activities will be ‘exempt’ from cessation. All other activities would need to be shut down in an orderly and deliberate fashion.”

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