WASHINGTON (AP) - The world's largest museum complex is bracing for a $40 million cut in funding due to the budget stalemate in Congress, but the Smithsonian Institution is vowing to keep the doors open at its museums and the National Zoo.
Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said the attractions that serve 30 million people a year will maintain normal visiting hours if automatic federal spending cuts take effect Friday.
Instead of reducing operating hours, the Smithsonian is preparing to absorb a 5 percent funding cut in other ways. Maintenance and new construction will be delayed. Hiring will be frozen, starting Friday. Use of outside contractors will be reduced, as well as training, research and travel.
"Right now, it won't affect the public," St. Thomas said. That could change, though, if funding is reduced over an extended period.
The Smithsonian operates 19 museums in the District of Columbia, Virginia and New York City, as well as research centers in Maryland, Massachusetts and elsewhere. Its federal appropriation this year is about $857 million, accounting for about 65 percent of the Smithsonian's budget. The halt on new construction won't affect the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which already is being built on the National Mall.
The $40 million cut would be spread out from March 1 to the end of its fiscal year Sept. 30. If the cuts last through September and beyond, that would be the worst-case scenario, having an extended impact on research and other operations, officials said.
On Wednesday, National Zoo Director Dennis Kelly was visiting the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., to discuss the potential cuts and observe animal breeding programs. The zoo has been bracing for the cuts by hoarding cash to protect animal welfare and to sustain its current research programs.
"We think we have a plan that allows us to squeak through to the end of this fiscal year. But we can't sustain this," Kelly said. "At the end of the fiscal year, if we're still in this mode, the entire Smithsonian is going to have to rethink all of our priorities."
If the cuts become permanent, the zoo would likely have to be a smaller place with less research and fewer animals.
Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough has said he wants to avoid layoffs or furloughs of the institution's 6,000 employees.
"We've thought long and hard about how we would absorb it," Clough said at a briefing with the Smithsonian Board of Regents in late January, noting the size of the reduction has been a moving target. "We would hope not to have to go to furloughs or museum closings."