WASHINGTON — The House, in a rare Saturday session, voted unanimously to guarantee that federal workers will receive back pay once the government shutdown ends, offering a promise of relief if not an actual rescue to more than 1 million government employees either furloughed or working without pay.
The 407-to-0 vote, on a measure backed by President Obama, followed a morning debate in which lawmakers from both parties extolled government doctors and nurses saving lives, emergency relief workers braving disasters to rescue citizens, and NASA scientists exploring space.
In 2011, many of those same lawmakers, swept to power on the wave of the Tea Party movement, pressed for legislation imposing a hard freeze on government salaries and held hearings on a federal workforce they said was overpaid and bloated.
In a separate development Saturday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made a surprise announcement that he would recall next week almost all of the 400,000 civilian employees of the Defense Department who had been sent home when the government shut down.
Hagel said the decision that most of the department’s civilian workers would now be exempted from furloughs came after Pentagon and Justice Department lawyers interpreted a stopgap budget law to include a larger number of workers.
When the government shut down Tuesday, about half of the Defense Department’s civilian workforce of 800,000 was ordered to stay home; military personnel are automatically exempted from the shutdown.
In a letter released Saturday, Hagel said that government lawyers have since determined that under the Pay Our Military Act, the Defense Department can “eliminate furloughs for employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities. and readiness of service members.” The act was passed by Congress and signed by Obama before the government shutdown in order to make sure the military was paid.
After Saturday’s House vote on back pay, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, criticized Obama for what he called a failure of leadership for refusing to negotiate a way out of the impasse.
But he said Republican leaders would not allow a vote to reopen the government without delivering a blow to the president’s health care law, with a delay in the mandate that individuals purchase health insurance and a prohibition on federal subsidies for members of Congress, White House leaders, and their staff, who must purchase policies on the law’s new insurance exchanges.
“The Republican position has been and continues to be no special treatment under the law, no special treatment under Obamacare,” Cantor said.
Frustration among Republicans is growing, however.
Representative Dennis A. Ross of Florida, who came to Congress on the Tea Party wave of 2010, said his party was misled if it believed that shutting down the government could disrupt or cripple the Affordable Care Act. Because the health law is paid for by its own funding mechanisms, it is moving forward as other parts of the government have ground to a halt.
The House also voted, 400 to 1, on a resolution saying military chaplains should be able to conduct religious services, despite the shutdown. Republicans accused the Obama administration of stifling religious freedom. Representative William Enyart, an Illinois Democrat, cast the lone “no” vote.
The bill continues a Republican strategy of passing a series of smaller spending measures on popular topics to pressure Democrats to reopen at least portions of the government.
So far, the bills passed include ones to finance the National Institutes of Health; to reopen national parks, monuments, and museums; to pay for veterans programs; and to pay inactive National Guardsmen and reservists.
House Republicans expect to take up at least nine other small spending bills, like financing the Head Start program for low-income children, as well as the Department of Homeland Security’s border protection programs.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democat, said Saturday the Senate will approve retroactive pay for furloughed workers, the Associated Press reported.
Reid has said he will not negotiate with Republicans or finance the government on a piecemeal basis. The Democrats want the Republicans to end the shutdown — the first in 17 years — with a spending bill that has no strings attached.
So far, there have been few signs of possible negotiations to end the standoff, and leaders on both sides again staked out their positions Saturday during their weekly addresses.
Obama talked about the toll the shutdown was having on Americans, and he urged the House to vote on a clean spending bill. “Stop this farce,” he said. “End this shutdown now.”
In the Republican response, Senator John Cornyn of Texas placed the blame for the shutdown on the Democrats.
“House Republicans have repeatedly sent over legislation that would fund federal operations, but Senate Democrats have rejected each and every bill,” Cornyn said.