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NM lawmakers optimistic as compromise plan gains

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WASHINGTON – New Mexico’s U.S. senators showed signs of relief Monday that the Senate was headed toward a compromise proposal to end a 2-week-old government shutdown and raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

The tentative agreement, which has not been formally unveiled, would keep the government operating until Jan. 15 and raise the federal debt ceiling until Feb. 15, or possibly longer.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said he would have preferred a debt limit agreement until the end of 2014, but reasoned that the proposal is better than a default, which would occur Thursday absent an agreement.

“I think things are starting to thaw a little bit here – I’m encouraged by the progress,” Heinrich said. “They seem to be talking about things are that are doable and within the realm of negotiable items.”

Heinrich also said he hoped an agreement between Senate and House leaders would be enticing to a House that has been unable to produce a compromise bill the Senate would accept.

“There is so much on the line here that if the Senate can come to agreement with the Republican and Democratic caucuses, you would think the House would do the right thing,” he said.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., also said he would prefer a longer deal on the debt limit, but hailed the possibility of a compromise that would avoid an immediate default.

“From what I’ve heard so far, both sides are compromising in order to end this stalemate, and I’m extremely relieved that cooler heads are prevailing,” Udall said. “The proposal isn’t perfect: I would like to see the debt limit extended for a full year or longer so our country can continue to pay the bills.”

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., said she hoped the House would accept the emerging Senate compromise.

“Based on the encouraging reports that the Senate is nearing a bipartisan agreement, I am increasingly hopeful that Congress will act quickly to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling to avert a full-blown economic catastrophe,” she said.

As the government shutdown entered its 15th day, Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories, whose workers have remained on the job, were preparing for furloughs beginning next Monday.

The labs, which design and build nuclear weapon parts, remain open, using carry-over funds from last fiscal year. But lab officials last week said that they were preparing to mothball their facilities and furlough all but a small number of essential safety and security workers beginning next Monday.

Meanwhile, all of the New Mexico congressional delegation’s offices – in-state and in Washington, D.C., – are open and staffed this week. Some members had temporarily furloughed workers, but they are back on the job.

The U.S. military’s 1.4 million active-duty personnel also remain on duty. About half of the Defense Department’s civilian employees were furloughed, but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered nearly all 350,000 back on the job. Congress has ensured $100,000 payments to families of fallen service members would continue.

Veterans are still able to get inpatient care at hospitals and mental health counseling at vet centers and outpatient clinics because Congress approved funding for VA health care programs one year in advance. Operators are also staffing the crisis hotline. If the shutdown were to continue into late October, the VA has warned that compensation and pension payments to veterans would be halted.

All of New Mexico’s 11 national parks and monuments have been closed since the shutdown began and will remain closed until the impasse is solved. The Obama administration said last week that it would allow states to use their own money to reopen some national parks. New Mexico is not among those that have chosen to do so.

Staff writer John Fleck contributed to this report.

 

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