Lawmakers Shed Staff Amid Call Deluge as Shutdown Starts

U.S. lawmakers have been deluged by calls from constituents in the past few weeks, urging them to avert a government shutdown or stand firm against the health-care law. Now, callers are more likely to reach voice mail rather than an employee.

The budget impasse over the 2010 Affordable Care Act that led to the furlough of 800,000 federal workers and the closure of offices and national parks also idled services and staff in Congress. Beginning yesterday, food service and trash pickup were sparse in the Capitol.

“We’ve got nowhere to eat, and a lot of the entrances are closed,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican. He said he is temporarily operating with a staff of four out of 30, with phone calls to his office’s main line answered by voice mail.

Some lawmakers said the loss of their perquisites might be enough to bring both political parties to negotiations.

“The first test of the shutdown will be the Senate eating boxed lunches at their Senate lunch rather than having the cafeteria serve us,” said Senator Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, referring to the catered meals during twice-a-week closed-door strategy meetings. “If they get a bad sandwich, maybe it will hurry up getting us back together.”

The shutdown suspended tours of the Capitol, leaving the Washington landmark without crowds of sightseers.

Botanic Garden

The Architect of the Capitol, the office that oversees the grounds, closed the U.S. Botanic Garden near the building and is curtailing clean-up of restrooms and offices in the complex. Most places to get food are closed. Barber shops and dry cleaners are shuttered.

There’s no immediate end in sight to the shutdown, with lawmakers stiffening their positions. House Republicans are preparing to fling a new round of proposals to the Senate as early as today, including one that would continue to provide pay to armed forces reservists who engage in inactive-duty training. Senate Democratic leaders say they’ll reject them.

As the government stoppage continues, each lawmaker decides how many staff members to retain during the shutdown.

Senator Kelly Ayotte, a first-term New Hampshire Republican, said she’s operating with a “skeletal staff” of six aides, down from 40, although the phone lines will stay open.

Services Suspended

Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, notified constituents that most of his staff won’t be at work. “My staff and I will be unable to respond to your phone calls and e-mails during this time,” he wrote yesterday.

Constituent calls to Carper’s Washington and state offices “will be forwarded to voice mail” and staff exempt from furlough will handle emergencies, Emily Spain, Carper’s spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, will be tough to reach after announcing that he is closing five home-state offices and suspending all constituent help.

“My office will not be able to assist with situations involving Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid, veterans’ benefits, immigration matters, passports, the Internal Revenue Service, securing military medals for veterans, or matters pertaining to any other federal government agency,” he said in a statement.

Volunteer Duty

In the House, many lawmakers asked aides to volunteer for duty -- with the possibility that both sides will agree to approve retroactive pay after the shutdown.

Representative Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, said his 20 aides in Washington and the district will answer the phones, anticipating a flood of calls from constituents upset about the shutdown along with requests for help from those who can’t reach shuttered agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Social Security Administration.

“With those offices being closed, they’ll call us even more because there will be no recourse,” Pallone said in an interview. “We’ll get a lot more calls and requests to help people.”

The shutdown is leading to a myriad of cutbacks. Representative Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat who is keeping his employees at work throughout the shutdown, entered the House members’ gym yesterday to find it without staff and basic supplies.

“The showers were still hot this morning, but no soap,” Cooper said.

Forgoing Paycheck

Some lawmakers are making a point of sacrificing during the shutdown. Representative Randy Hultgren, a second-term Illinois Republican, said in a statement yesterday that he’s among the members of Congress who will give back his salary until the stalemate ends.

“I asked the House to revoke my salary until Congress passes and the president signs an acceptable solution to fund the federal government,” said Hultgren, who has voted with almost all other House Republicans to tie continued government funding to curtailment of the health-care law, popularly known as Obamacare.

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