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State Department prepares for government shutdown

By Jill Dougherty, CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent
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Fear and anger if government shuts down
  • NEW: Department cancels "Passport Day in the USA"
  • Services for citizens traveling abroad will continue
  • If you are in America and need a new passport, you'll have to wait
  • Embassies in conflict and danger zones will not close

Washington (CNN) -- If you are an American traveling abroad during the government shutdown and you need help from the local U.S. Embassy for an emergency, you'll still get it.

State Department services for citizens abroad -- for example, life-or-death medical emergencies or humanitarian cases involving minor children -- won't stop. If you're arrested abroad or need help in returning an abducted child to the United States from abroad, you'll also get help from the State Department.

But if you're in the United States and need a new passport, you'll have to wait.

Passport offices won't take any new applications, but emergency passport services will continue and staff will remain on the job to process expedited applications already in the system.

Because of the budget crisis, the State Department announced it was canceling the annual "Passport Day in the USA," which had been scheduled for Saturday. Passport agencies and participating passport acceptance facilities normally open their doors for U.S. citizens to receive passport services without an appointment.

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U.S. Embassies are the face of the United States abroad, and the State Department, in its guidelines on how the shutdown would affect operations, says those posts are likely to be less affected by the shutdown than some domestic agencies.

"Closing down or significantly scaling back operations abroad could immediately diminish our influence and damage our relations with the host governments," the guidelines say.

The State Department also plays a crucial domestic security role, and embassies and missions abroad provide information critical to all national security agencies, so that will continue as well.

Embassies in conflict and danger zones, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan and Tokyo, will not close. The State Department website has specific instructions for staff who fall into either "excepted" or "non-excepted" categories. "Excepted" employees fill functions necessary for emergencies involving "the safety of human life or the protection of property," and national security functions.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can continue working and traveling. But everyone, "excepted" or not, will have to show up for work as usual after the shutdown begins. They will be told whether they are staying or going home. Those who won't continue working will get a "furlough letter" and will have to shut down their files, notify contacts they are closed, cancel meetings and conferences, etc.

The online directive says, "We anticipate that these activities will take approximately four hours for the majority of employees."

Staff in other countries who are not Americans also will get a written notice. How does the State Department explain the fact that the government of the most powerful country in the world is simply shutting down? Furlough letters for local staff put it this way: "This action is being taken by officials in Washington and is not a reflection of your services to the U.S. Government."

Even if they wanted to continue working for no pay, non-excepted staff could not. Volunteer work is illegal, according to terms of a government shutdown. "Employees are advised that 'work' includes reporting to work as well as using fobs, Blackberrys, and teleworking,'" the posting says.

They are not supposed to return to their offices until the shutdown is over, although, the directive says, if they forgot something at their desk, they can go back to retrieve it.

What's next? Those "non-excepted" employees have to monitor the news like the rest of us, waiting for word that the shutdown is over.