By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In the waning hours before a potential U.S. government shutdown, lawmakers expressed anxiety that some of the people hit hardest will be those who are closest to them - the army of often low-paid aides who work long hours to keep Capitol Hill going.
Many congressional staffers have been declared "essential," meaning they would come to work even if the government is closed. But under the rules of a shutdown, they would not be paid until the impasse is over.
Those deemed inessential would be furloughed, with no guarantee of getting back lost income.
And a few will be rotating work days with unpaid furlough days, as their bosses try to spread around the shutdown's impact. "I'm 3/5 essential," one House of Representatives staffer joked ruefully about being scheduled to work for three days, and off for two, during a shutdown.
Congress remained in partisan deadlock late Monday over Republican efforts to use a temporary spending bill as a means to delay implementation of President Barack Obama's landmark healthcare restructuring.
Competing spending measures flew back and forth between the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Democratic-led Senate without any sign of compromise ahead of the midnight deadline for passage of a spending bill.
Some members of Congress acknowledged the impact of a shutdown on the workforce on whom they rely.
Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, told reporters that low-level staffers were being "sacrificed" for political reasons.
Representative Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, said aides were being treated as political pawns.
"For me, I don't care how much you want to beat up on members of Congress. We go through this kind of self-loathing exercise where we tell everyone how bad we are. That's one thing. It's the people who work here, who believe that public service is an honorable profession," he said.
They also have a significant pay gap. Many members of Congress have large personal fortunes, and senators and representatives make annual salaries of $174,000.
Some low-level staffers make only about $30,000 a year, and many aides take congressional jobs over more lucrative positions in the private sector partly because of their benefits.
Things were especially awkward for House Republican staffers, whose bosses voted on Monday for a plan to strip out contributions by their employer - the federal government - to the cost of health insurance for members of Congress and their staffs.
Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican, said he had made a point of briefing his staff about the impact of a shutdown. "We've been talking, as you would imagine, for the last several months," he told reporters.
(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Paul Simao)