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Looming 'fiscal cliff' cuts alarming feds

WASHINGTON -- Federal employees have been skeptical for months that the biggest cuts to government spending in history could really happen. But with the "fiscal cliff" a week away, workers are now growing increasingly alarmed that their jobs and their missions could be on the line.

President Barack Obama and members of Congress headed out of town late last week for a Christmas break without reaching a deal to avoid $110 billion in automatic across-the-board spending cuts, which would affect operations ranging from weather forecasting and air-traffic control to the purchase of weapons-systems parts. So civil servants are bracing for the blow, wondering whether their work will be upended or require taking unpaid days off.

"This could change day by day," said Antonio Webb, 25, who works in the mail service that handles correspondence for the Department of Homeland Security. "You could come into work and the next day they say, 'We don't need you because we have to cut so much.' "

Many federal workers have become jaded after a two-year pay freeze and congressional fights over spending that keep agencies lurching from one stopgap budget to another. Until recently, few employees thought it could come to this: budget cuts of 8 to 10 percent divided equally between military and domestic agencies. Few programs such as Social Security, veterans benefits and some services for the poor are exempt.

"Sure, we continue to do our jobs," said Carl Eichenwald, who works in enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency. "But all of this uncertainty is disruptive for our mission. A lot of time gets spent spinning wheels. We won't know whether we can do inspections. Do we have 100 percent of our budget, or 85 percent?"

Top congressional aides said Monday that discussions of how to avert the cliff had come to a virtual standstill. Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), had not spoken since Friday.

A senior Democratic aide said Boehner needs to return from the holiday with a "cleared head and a readiness to deal" because they can press forward with legislation only if they are assured by Republican leaders of GOP support.

A senior Senate Republican aide insisted, however, that it is now up to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his fellow Democrats to figure out what they can pass in the Senate without worrying about the GOP-controlled House.

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