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Slimdown puts Syria, immigration, other key issues on back burners

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FILE: Oct. 2, 2013: Protestors hold signs, and CodePink founder Medea Benjamin wears oversized sunglasses during a Senate hearing on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. (AP)

The Capitol Hill budget debates to fund the federal government and end the partial shutdown has pushed aside other important work including immigration reform, imposing sanction on rogue nations and congressional investigations into the IRS scandal and the Benghazi terror attacks.

The White House warned Friday that U.S. sanctions against Iran may suffer because of the slimdown. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Treasury office that handles sanctions had to furlough nearly its entire staff and cannot sustain such primary duties, which include new sanctions on Iran, Syria, terrorist groups and drug cartels.

The Capitol Hill situation unfolded in the weeks ahead of the partial shutdown, with the Republican-led House negotiating unsuccessfully with the Democrat-run Senate and President Obama.

And the situation has only intensified since the slimdown started, with both parties trying to strike a deal to, in part, bring back to work roughly 800,000 federal workers and avoid further voter dissatisfaction.

The slimdown that kicked in Oct. 1 has also resulted in Congress delaying work on other, pressing matters because members have had to slash their staff, which organizes hearings and helps draft legislation.

For example, New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte has reduced her 38-member staff to a handful of essential staffers and Wyoming Republican Sen. Jon Barrasso has cut his staff in half.

Among the numerous scheduled hearing cancelled this week was one on the Washington Navy Yard shootings before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Committee, according to The Washington Post.

The office of West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin attempted to highlight the situation by releasing a photo of the lawmaker answering phone calls in his Capitol Hill office.

In Syria, the roughly 2-year-long civil war continues, despite President Bashar al-Assad appearing to take steps toward agreeing to an international inspection of its chemical weapons.

“The killings continue,” Peter Brookes, a Heritage Foundation fellow and a Bush administration deputy assistant secretary of defense, told Fox News on Thursday. “The Assad regime picked up the pace after the chemical-weapons deal was cut. We have no Syria policy. It is a mess.”

Brookes made his comments amid reports Assad forces are on the offensive in the same village hit by an Aug. 21 chemical-weapon attack.

The forces have surrounded about 12,000 people in the suburban Damascus town, blocking their food supply, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Iran officials have recently suggested a willingness to let international inspectors look at their nuclear-enrichment program. But observers say the crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United States and others have brought the rogue nation to the table.

Immigration reform was supposed to be a top priority for this Congress, potential legacy legislation for Obama that was passed in the Senate but has stalled in the House.

Sources tell Fox News there is no movement on immigration but that lawmakers are working on reform to the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, exposed in recent months for collecting data on Americans’ phone calls and Internet activities, as part of its anti-terror efforts.

In fact, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing Wednesday on the issue, titled “Continued Oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.