WASHINGTON — Around 800,000 increasingly desperate federal workers are about to miss their first paychecks on Friday, coincidentally the same day the current government shutdown becomes tied for the longest in American history. But unlike past government shutdowns, Congress is treating this like a normal standoff rather than a national crisis.
During previous shutdowns Congress stayed in session through evenings and weekends trying to hammer out a deal. This time, they took the Christmas season off and have been heading home for their regular weekends. They even took Monday off.
Emergency measures such as working together to put pressure on President Donald Trump, or gaining leverage by threatening to override Trump’s veto powers, are off the table. Rather than drastic bipartisan action, lawmakers on both sides have dug in and mostly seem resigned to a sustained standoff.
“The Senate Republicans are acting like they can just conduct business as usual, when the first order of business has to be reopening the government,” Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen told BuzzFeed News, pointing to the fact that House Democrats have passed legislation to do just that. (Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are talking about refusing to move on any legislation in the Senate until the government reopens.)
Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern told BuzzFeed News that at a Rules Committee meeting, Republicans discussed allowing essentially unlimited amendments to bills to reopen the government, something McGovern said would take weeks to get through.
“That’s not a sense of urgency, I mean that’s basically just ignoring the fact that we have a real crisis on our hands,” McGovern told BuzzFeed News. “This is a crisis. I mean, we’re getting calls in my office from people that are already feeling the adverse effects of this. Tomorrow people won’t be getting paychecks. I mean this is real. And what’s shocking to me is that so many Republicans seem to be totally fine with just having this laid back attitude like no big deal. It is a big deal.”
Federal workers, meanwhile, are frustrated by the lack of action and worrying about what they will do without pay. At a rally for federal workers in Silver Spring, Maryland, on Wednesday night, one Smithsonian employee who manages volunteers wondered aloud if they could organize a “shut in” for the Senate and keep senators there until the crisis is solved. The crowd laughed appreciatively, and Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, who organized the event, quipped: “And a shut up for the White House.”
Chris, who asked that his last name not be used over professional concerns, told BuzzFeed News he’s been working overtime and without pay as an air traffic controller for the Federal Aviation Administration because they’re short staffed. He’s about a week — maybe two — out from having to tap into his retirement funds and kids’ college funds (which he’ll be penalized for) just to get by. Right now, his family is living off of savings — the kind of savings that are supposed to cover vacations and aren’t sufficiently padded to live off of for an extended period of time.
“Some [lawmakers] are taking it seriously, other ones, I don’t think they are. I can’t believe that we’re being held hostage over a wall that has nothing to do with what I do for a living. Why am I being made to suffer for something that has nothing to do with what I do? It just makes no sense to me,” Chris said.
“This [shutdown] feels different. Before, they’re one day, two days — you blink an eye and they’re over. I don’t think this one’s going to end anytime soon, and I have no idea what I’m going to do.”
As of Thursday, a day after Trump and congressional leaders got together at the White House for their latest meeting, an end to the shutdown is still not in sight. They got together in a room where Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told Trump Democrats were still against his wall. This led to the president of the United States slamming his hand on the table and saying, “bye bye,” a congressional aide familiar with the meeting said.
“A total waste of time,” Trump tweeted shortly after the meeting. “I asked what is going to happen in 30 days if I quickly open things up, are you going to approve Border Security which includes a Wall or Steel Barrier? Nancy said, NO. I said bye-bye, nothing else works!”
On his way into a lunch with Senate Republicans earlier the same day, Trump was asked how long he’s willing to let the shutdown last. Trump replied simply: “Whatever it takes.”
In the meantime, federal employees have little recourse, some of them stuck at home unable to do their jobs. “Here I am, sitting at home, just refreshing news sites, and hoping this government shutdown ends,” one FDA employee said at the rally.
Others are protesting across the country this week, including hundreds who walked from the AFL-CIO building in downtown DC on Thursday to the White House. TSA employees, who are among the estimated 420,000 federal workers forced to work without pay, have been calling out sick. But federal law prohibits federal employees from striking as the shutdown rages on.
There were some Republican voices pushing back at the lunch meeting between Trump and Senate Republicans on Wednesday and trying to find a way forward. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski pushed for re-opening the government while continuing to negotiate the border issue. And Maine Sen. Susan Collins recommended revisiting a bipartisan bill negotiated last year that would have provided $25 billion of border security funding in exchange for immigration reforms sought by Democrats. By multiple accounts, these went nowhere.
“I’m not going to impugn the concerns of many of my colleagues, but if you asked me to describe the president in one word I would say ‘resolute,’ said Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy. “He gave no indication of any willingness to budge.”
And so a waiting game has set in. Republicans who support a short-term spending bill to reopen the government while negotiations continue agree that Trump would have no part of it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is largely sitting out the negotiations between Trump and the Democrats and has said he will not allow a vote on any bill that Trump does not endorse.
That kills the option of Republicans and Democrats in Congress working together to pass a bill and daring Trump to veto it. McConnell’s stance also blocks one extreme but otherwise possible end to the shutdown — Congress overriding a presidential veto with two-thirds votes in both chambers, thus re-opening the government by themselves.
McConnell’s position gives rank-and-file Republicans cover from having to decide whether to oppose the president and negotiate with Democrats or plan a veto override. Trump’s consent has become the key to any deal. “It would work for me,” said Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of a short-term bill to reopen the government. “But I don’t think it would for the president.”
With these options off the table, Republicans have instead unified behind the president and dug in. Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have refused to budge and continue to call for the original deal agreed to in December.
“Both parties have to feel like they won, and Trump is very much a guy who feels like he has to win and everybody else has to lose. So there’s been nothing from the White House that suggests that we can find a middle ground, some kind of a way to move forward,” Virginia Rep. Don Beyer told BuzzFeed News.
“I know, from a Democratic perspective, at least my own — this is not for me about Trump losing,” Beyer said. You find a way that he saves face? That’s fine. … But for a negotiation to work you have to have two people in good faith sitting at a table saying, let’s narrow our differences. … You don’t have that.”
At the rally Raskin and other local lawmakers hosted in Silver Spring on Wednesday, the topic of federal workers having to work without pay inevitably came up from the stage. Several audience members shouted back, “Slavery!”
Caitlin, a DOJ law enforcement employee who was at the rally, has had to continue working without pay. She also asked that her last name not be used.
“When you work and you don’t get paid, you don’t work the same way. So like, people aren’t putting their heart into it, people are calling in sick. At least in my office, people are just coming in four hours late. I mean, how can you expect people to show up?” Caitlin said, adding that people are “printing out resumes all day, applying to Amazon [which plans to open up a headquarters in the area], applying to other jobs.”
“Not very many people are rich enough to be able to just volunteer full time.”