Federal workers in region assess effects of shutdown

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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Signs of a partial government shutdown reached Southwest Washington on Tuesday, as Congress debated how to get federal agencies running again.

Some of the estimated 3,300 federal employees living in Clark County experienced their first unpaid day off during the shutdown on Tuesday. Jessica Klement, of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, didn't have specifics on how many federal workers in Clark County faced the furloughs, but said about 40 percent of federal workers nationwide — 800,000 employees — were sent home.

The Ridgefield, Steigerwald Lake and Pierce national wildlife refuges closed to the public. If the shutdown isn't resolved by Saturday, the Birdfest event planned this weekend at the Ridgefield refuge will be moved off-site, and some of the event's birding activities will be postponed.

Federal parks in Washington, such as Fort Vancouver, closed. The Marshall House on Officers Row remains open because it's run by the nonprofit Fort Vancouver National Trust.

Many federal forecasting and volcanic monitoring services will remain functional during the shutdown. "However, because of reduced staff, instrument network maintenance will cease, meaning that our monitoring capability will degrade over time," Cascades Volcano Observatory officials said in a statement. "Our websites will remain functional, but only those pages containing information about current volcano hazards will be maintained."

Bill Schneider, acting meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service's Portland office, declined to comment on staff furloughs, but he did say: "We are going to carry on our forecasting operations as we have in the past."

The weather service's Portland website is still operational, "because the information this site provides is necessary to protect life and property," according to a message posted on the site. At the same time, the main National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website, NOAA.gov, is down.

Sheryl Hutchison, spokeswoman for the state Employment Security Department, said the agency's WorkSource program and most other employment services will remain available. The department will use state funds to process unemployment claims, but "will have to revisit this decision if the shutdown lasts more than a few weeks," she said.

The shutdown will have "no short-term effects" on Clark College, which began its fall quarter on Sept. 23, said Chato Hazelbaker, college spokesman. He said the shutdown is not affecting student loan payments, which were disbursed Sept. 23.

Federally funded early childhood learning programs won't be affected by the shutdown before Nov. 1, when federal grant money for the Head Start and Early Head Start programs would end, said Carol Foster, executive director of Educational Opportunities for Children and Families. Head Start serves about 500 children in Clark County, Long Beach and Woodland, while the Early Head Start program, for kids 3 and younger, serves about 90.

Republican U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler's Vancouver, Chehalis and Washington, D.C., offices will remain open, although about 40 percent of her staff is furloughed, said her spokesman, Casey Bowman. However, "staffing levels may be adjusted to ensure (Herrera Beutler) can fulfill her constitutional responsibilities to residents," he wrote in an email.

Democratic U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray said they've closed their district offices in Washington state, including in Vancouver, and have furloughed many staff. Cantwell announced on her official website that her constituents may experience a delay in hearing from her.

"Once the federal government resumes normal operations, we will promptly reply to all correspondence received during the period of the shutdown," Cantwell said.

Debate rages on

Meanwhile, Murray blasted House Republican leadership Monday night and said she isn't willing to negotiate on health care reforms, but she'll continue to fight to end the shutdown.

"To be clear, this shutdown would be over immediately if (Republican House Speaker John) Boehner would simply allow both Democrats and Republicans in the House to vote on the bill the Senate has passed multiple times to continue funding the government," Murray said. "Shutting down the government over a law that has — and will continue to — provide Washington families with access to affordable health care is the height of irresponsibility and Washington state families deserve better."

Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, voted in line with House Republican leadership over the weekend and on Monday, supporting the GOP's proposals to dismantle or delay parts of President Obama's health care reforms passed in 2010. Bowman said Tuesday that Herrera Beutler's top priority is to reopen the federal government, but she isn't second-guessing her party's leaders in the press.

"As Clark County residents see their health care choices decrease, and as low-wage workers across the country have their hours slashed and many others are seeing their coverage reduced, it's difficult to deny that this health care law is falling short of what was promised," Bowman wrote.

On Tuesday, Herrera Beutler was en route to California, where her infant daughter remains in a hospital after being born without functioning kidneys. Bowman said Herrera Beutler will continue to talk with her colleagues and return to Washington, D.C., to vote on the final deal.

"(Her) goal right now is to help Congress coalesce around a strategy that reopens the government," Bowman wrote.


Columbian staff writers Eric Florip and Susan Parrish contributed to this report.