Snow closes DC but much of government still runs

02/13/2014 5:42 PM

02/13/2014 6:13 PM

The White House canceled its daily news briefing. Vice President Joe Biden dropped plans to attend a retreat for congressional Democrats. As a snowstorm socked the nation’s capital, much of the federal government closed Thursday for business.

But unlike the sweeping federal government shutdown prompted by last fall’s budget battle, this closing affected only the Washington area – and primarily non-emergency workers and those who couldn’t work via computer. Outside the capital – and even in many D.C. offices _ operations were a go, including the Interior Department’s announcement of a new oil lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico.

A federal government employee survey last year suggested that nearly half of federal employees were able to telecommute, and many most likely were, said Dean Hunter, the director of facilities, security and contracting for the Office of Personnel Management, which makes the call on whether to close the government during emergencies.

“It’s really an agency-by-agency decision as to who is required to work,” Hunter said, noting that emergency and law enforcement officials remained on the job.

A 2010 law signed by President Barack Obama sought to increase the number of federal employees eligible to telework, in part to allow the government to keep running during bad weather, natural disasters or other emergencies.

The White House declared a snow day for public events: It already had postponed Obama’s rollout of “My Brother’s Keeper,” a new initiative to boost opportunities for black men and boys, and scrapped Press Secretary Jay Carney’s daily news briefing and Biden’s trip to nearby Cambridge, Md.

Next door to the White House, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was at work, scheduled to meet with King Abdullah II of Jordan and to chair a previously scheduled meeting of the Financial Stability Oversight Council. That panel assesses threats to the U.S. and global financial system.

And although most federal government offices were closed, it didn’t stop the nation from incurring more debt. The Treasury Department’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service announced four auctions Thursday morning and held an auction for $16 billion worth of 30-year bonds.

The bad weather also didn’t stop the Labor Department from issuing its closely watched weekly report on first-time claims for unemployment benefits. For the week that ended Feb. 8, there were 339,000 first-time claims filed nationally, an increase of 8,000. The harsh winter the U.S. has experienced is expected to hurt employment and slow retail sales in affected areas.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced Thursday that the department will offer more than 40 million acres for oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico.

A host of other actions by “departments across the federal family” also were being published for public review Thursday, Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said.

Congress, however, saw the storm coming early and leaders in the House of Representatives pushed up a vote on the debt limit to Tuesday in order to get out of town.

A House Democratic retreat Thursday attracted only about two-thirds of the House’s 200 Democrats. It’s scheduled to continue Friday, with Obama meeting with Democrats in the morning.

Most congressional hearings were canceled and Congress was closed Thursday, except for police and security.

In nearby Arlington County, Va., some federal workers and contractors put on their volunteer fire department uniforms and pitched in to check downed lines and assist emergency crews.

The storm shuttered or limited operations at more than two dozen military bases in the Southeast region, said Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, a Pentagon spokesman. He said that more than 2,300 Army and Air National Guard troops across seven states and the District of Columbia were helping civilian officials deal with the aftermath of the storm, which slammed much of the Southeast.

“There are 26 major military installations closed, on minimum manning or on delayed reporting in affected areas along the East Coast,” he said.

National Guard troops were working in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Delaware, as well as in Washington.

The Pentagon was open, and “critical operations are functional,” Crosson said. Some Defense Department employees were able to telecommute – as Crosson was doing – and others were tethered via government-issued BlackBerries, he said.

Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga., was designated as the military’s main support base to help deploy supplies and equipment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Veterans’ clinics and military hospitals were largely unaffected.

OPM will remain on the job. It held a 9 p.m. conference call Wednesday with about 200 parties – including local transportation and emergency officials _ to decide whether to close the government. A similar call was to be held at 9 p.m. Thursday to determine whether to keep employees home a second day.

Kevin G. Hall, David Lightman, Sean Cockerham and Michael Doyle contributed to this article.

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