WASHINGTON — JOSEPH ROURKE of Washington, D.C., has two reasons to worry about the partial federal government shutdown.
His ailing wife receives home-delivered meals through a federally funded program that is running out of money. And Mr. Rourke, a vigorous nonagenarian, delivers "meals on wheels" himself to other elderly people.
But at the end of its third week, the partial shutdown is stretching far beyond the nation's capital, reverberating across the country - and around the world. Kansas has stopped paying unemployment benefits; other states are close to doing the same. The Environmental Protection Agency has halted cleanups at 609 toxic sites. Workplace safety inspections are being deferred. Embassies are operating with skeletal staffs, hampering US diplomacy. Some diplomats have even had to siphon gas from one car to another.
At press time, the budget impasse that produced the partial shutdown hadn't been resolved. And in rapid order, the dispute that at first affected mainly federal workers and their families has now spread into the federally funded programs that benefit millions of Americans.
The private sector is also feeling the heat: Labor Secretary Robert Reich reports that companies with federal contracts have laid off 80,000 employees so far. The small businesses whose lifeblood comes from these and furloughed federal workers - such as delis and other nearby shops - are suffering untold damage. So far, the bottom-line costs of the shutdown haven't been tallied. The Labor Department economists who would collect the data and measure the impact are on furlough.
The Clinton administration is milking the situation for all it's worth, blaming House Republicans at every turn. "It is an unnatural disaster born of a cynical political strategy," President Clinton said.
House Republicans - who have broken with their Senate counterparts on the need to maintain the lever of a partially shuttered government - say this is not their shutdown.
"This is his government shutdown," Rep. Susan Molinari (R) of New York told reporters, referring to Mr. Clinton. Because the president vetoed three appropriations bills that would have kept several key departments in business, she argues, the GOP is not to blame.
Beyond the beltway, though, Americans who have focused on the battle are blaming "them" - the Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the increasingly acrimonious dispute.
But even now, say some officials, we're not quite seeing a massive public groundswell against the shutdown.
"No one cares about federal or state workers except federal and state workers and the people that benefit from their services," says Ben Coates, spokesman for the Kansas Department on Aging, speaking from home on the first day of his own furlough. "The shutdown hasn't been in effect quite long enough for people to really miss their government," Mr. Coates continues. "But if this isn't settled by the weekend, that could all change. Wait till people don't get their unemployment checks."
The imminent phasedown of Meals on Wheels and other elderly nutrition programs, which together benefit 1 million older Americans, has rapidly become a symbol of the "real people" who could be hurt by the shutdown.
In Tennessee, the state's Commission on Aging is flat out of money. The nine area agencies on aging that administer nutrition and other programs for Tennessee's elderly are marshalling their remaining resources as best they can.
In the small town of Martin, about 120 miles north of Memphis, the local agency arranges 900 meals a day for aged residents. According to Robert Brandon, director of the Northwest Tennessee Development District, the money for the meals will dry up in a matter of days. "A lot of people who get these meals are homebound and they depend on it," says Mr. Brandon. "These are people who live at home who'd otherwise be in nursing homes."
If push came to shove, and the agency really had no more money for meals, Brandon hopes that families, churches, and other charities would step in and feed the elderly. But, he adds, "there would be some people who would just fall through the cracks."
Some states are able to replace missing federal funds with their own money until the shutdown is resolved. This week, New Jersey floated a $240 million bond one month earlier than it would have because of the shutdown. By raising the money early, says the governor's spokeswoman, Becky Taylor, "we have a little extra insurance."
But meanwhile, the list of federally funded activities affected extends to several pages - and serves as a reminder of all the ways federal dollars trickle out into the populace. At universities, for example, some federally funded research has slowed or halted. US passports are not being issued, which hurts the travel industry. And, the White House points out, "deadbeat dads are getting a holiday": The Federal Parent Locator Service, which gets an average of 20,000 referrals a day, is shut down.