CBS News: Family-run businesses, contractors and tens of thousands of federal workers wait as Congress attempts to avoid government shutdown

CBS NEWS, SCOTT MACFARLANE

Marty Nohe, who owns a family-run appliance store and distribution center in Woodbridge, Virginia, said his employees have asked him “why business was so quiet.”

He said, “I told them, ‘Haven’t you been watching the news?'” 

He says he watched customer traffic dwindle at least twice in 2023 during the weeks when Congress nearly breached deadlines to avoid government shutdowns.  

“There’s no question — even just the discussion of shutdowns causes a noticeable change in foot traffic. It hurts. I have fixed costs. I can’t just slash my employees’ hours,” Nohe told CBS News as he stood near his 20,000 foot appliance showroom, which sits on a major road near a Starbucks and a few large hotels.

His business, which employs 45 people and has been operated by his family since 1985, relies on purchases by federal workers and community members with ties to the Pentagon, the FBI facility in Quantico and Washington, D.C.    

Those purchases could begin to dry up next week if Congress can’t complete its work. And Nohe knows it.

For the third time since September, Congress is scrambling to avert a partial government shutdown that could force the furlough of tens of thousands of federal workers, result in disruptions in pay for military servicemembers and jolt the stock market. In an effort to avoid a shutdown in late 2023, Congress approved a novel plan to split government spending in two chunks with two separate deadlines. Some federal agencies, including transportation, agriculture and water programs, are funded through Jan. 19. The remainder, including the Pentagon, homeland security, the State Department and Congress itself, currently have funding through Feb. 2.

Senate and House negotiators announced some progress Sunday, a $1.59 trillion compromise framework to help guide final negotiations between now and the deadlines. President Biden welcomed the news, saying in a statement, “The bipartisan funding framework congressional leaders have reached moves us one step closer to preventing a needless government shutdown and protecting important national priorities.”

Negotiators and congressional leaders acknowledged more work is needed to complete an agreement, with margins especially narrow in the  House and Senate.     

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said in a statement that Democrats “made clear” to House Speaker Mike Johnson that they wouldn’t support the inclusion of “poison pill” provisions in the 12 appropriations bills.

After a year in which even a handful of dissenting voices have bedeviled spending negotiations, Johnson argued the agreement is worthy of support and said in a letter that it “represents the most favorable budget agreement Republicans have achieved in over a decade.” 

Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, who took office in 2019 amid a prior partial government shutdown, said she worries the split deadlines have complicated forecasting the outcome, which worries federal workers and small businesses.

“I have constituents who are well aware and deeply worried,” Spanberger said. “But there’s confusion over time frames and when the impact will be felt.” 

Spanberger said requests for unemployment benefits surged in her congressional district during the 2018-19 shutdown. She said food banks are at risk of getting squeezed this month, as workers who may be furloughed might lean on charities for food, while others cut back on donations. 

Republicans and Democratic leaders have developed some recent muscle memory in their arguments about shutdowns. Each side spent much of 2023 accusing the other of intransigence. And both parties have emphasized the pain of a protracted standoff that strips paychecks from federal workers. 

GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said, “It creates a lot of collateral damage and a lot of collateral expense. It doesn’t actually save money. It actually costs more money because of the disruption, and shutdowns harm innocent people and create needless uncertainty for our economy.”

A representative of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents IRS employees, EPA workers and members of the National Park Service, said its federal employee members are nervously awaiting action from Congress. Doreen Greenwald, the union president, told CBS News her members “have painful memories of running up credit card debt and taking out expensive short-term loans to make it through the disastrous 2018-19 shutdown. It can be difficult to build up a rainy-day fund when their budgets are stretched to cover rising costs.”

A spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents approximately 750,000 federal employees, including in the nation’s veterans hospitals, told CBS News the government union is urging Congress to not only avert a shutdown, but to do so without “additional cuts or the imposition of a fiscal commission that will attack Social Security and other programs important to working people.”

The union has even posted printable protest posters on its website, including signs reading, “Congress:  Do your job, stop the shutdown.”

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