Update: Gov't reopens, debt limit rises
by Kellen Short
Local agencies and individuals are breathing a sigh of relief following late-night votes Wednesday in Congress to reopen the federal government and raise the nation's debt limit.
The deal, announced Wednesday by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, passed the Senate by a vote of 81-18 and the House by a vote of 285-144. President Barack Obama signed the bill shortly after midnight.
The agreement raises the United States' $16.7 trillion debt limit and avoids default through at least Feb. 7, 2014, while funding the federal government through Jan. 15, 2014.
It makes no major changes to the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," as many Republicans had sought. It does require stronger protections against fraud by those who receive subsidies under the health insurance program.
Republican Sen. Richard Burr and Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan both voted for the bill, while Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican, voted against.
Trickle-down crisis averted
In Watauga County, the impacts of the bill's passage were felt immediately Thursday morning.
At the Parkway Craft Center inside Moses Cone Manor, visitors were waiting outside when the doors opened for the first time in 17 days, manager Ellen Schaller said.
But the damage caused by Washington's brinksmanship already has been done.
Unlike federal employees, those who work at the craft center will not get back-pay for their time off work, she said. Neither will the local artists who planned to host demonstrations and sell their work on the craft center's enclosed porch.
Schaller said contracted employees such as restroom custodians also won't get paychecks.
"It goes beyond the obvious," Schaller said. "Those people might be easily forgotten, but they're critical to an operation."
Schaller estimated that the craft center had lost about $70,000 in revenue it would typically gain selling handmade crafts to leaf-lookers during October.
"We lost over half of our month's sales, and it is our biggest month in the whole year," Schaller said. "So it has dramatically changed my entire year just because of two weeks."
In the Watauga County Department of Social Services, Director Jim Atkinson said he was "doing much better" on Thursday.
"People that were ready to go into panic mode won't need to," Atkinson said.
He said Thursday that funding had been restored for child care subsidies, the Work First welfare program, food stamps and other social services without interruption.
"I don't know of any long-term results that we're going to see as a result of this, and that's a good thing," Atkinson said. "All of our funding, it appears, is going to be retroactive to Oct. 1."
If a deal had not been reached, approximately 300 Watauga County children would have no longer received child care subsidies, Atkinson said Wednesday. Another 35 to 40 working or in-training individuals would stop receiving financial assistance checks. About 2,000 families depending on food stamps would no longer see the money placed on their electronic benefit transfer cards.
And all or some of the 47 DSS employees might have been furloughed, he said.
"I've never seen anything like this," Atkinson said. "This is kind of the most anxiety-producing issue that's come up in my 32 years (in DSS)."
Before Thursday, the Watauga County Project on Aging was beginning the "impossible" task of determining how to function without an estimated $110,000 in block grant funds, Director Angie Boitnotte said.
The federal block grant funds home-delivered meals, in-home aid, transportation and congregate nutrition programs for Watauga County's elderly population, she said.
"All four of those programs -- potentially the whole agency -- would have been impacted had it gone on any longer," Boitnotte said.
In remarks Thursday at the White House, Obama discussed the broader impact the shutdown had on the nation's credibility and financial outlook.
"These last few weeks have inflicted completely unnecessary damage on our economy," he said. "We don't know yet the full scope of the damage, but every analyst out there believes it slowed our growth."
How our reps voted
The agreement reached this week buys legislators a few more months to reach a compromise on deficit reduction and spending cuts.
Burr said in a statement Thursday that he thought from the beginning that defunding Obamacare by shutting down the federal government was unachievable.
"The decision to shut down the government has been viewed, rightfully, by the American people as irresponsible governing," Burr said. "It is time we move on from this episode, begin the reforms needed in our entitlement programs and the tax code, address the rampant waste, fraud and abuse in government spending, and get back to creating an environment that allows for economic expansion and job creation."
Hagan added that the government shutdown was completely unnecessary.
"Congress should have never gotten to the point where the government was shut down and on the verge of a default crisis, and no one should attempt to take a victory lap after tonight's vote," she said in a statement. " ... It's time for Congress to stop manufacturing crises and get to work on a long-term, bipartisan and balanced plan to get our fiscal house in order, grow our economy and giver certainty to families and business owners."
Foxx, however, voted against reopening the government and avoiding default.
"While I am glad to see the federal government shutdown end and have temporary assurance that America's bills will be paid, given the magnitude of the problems we face, the solution offered by the United States Senate does not adequately improve America's long-term fiscal health," Foxx said in a lengthy statement. "Thus, I could not offer my support."
Foxx went on to say that the United States' sizeable challenges are a result of temporary fixes that have failed to solve the nation's biggest problems.
"In the House of Representatives, we had hoped the occasion of America's debt ceiling deadline would spur bipartisan commitment to confront the real drivers of America's $16.7 trillion debt, debt that will hang over the heads of our children and grandchildren for years to come. It did not," Foxx said. "We attempted to work with the president and Senate Democrats to delay Obamacare's unprecedented individual mandate tax and at least guarantee fairness in the broken law's implementation. They refused."