Congress leaves town as federal workers miss their first paycheck

Congress leaves town as federal workers miss their first paycheck

Lawmakers leave the Capitol

Lawmakers left Washington for the weekend with no bipartisan talks scheduled. | M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO

Congress left for the weekend after a final round of negotiations to end the 21-day budget stalemate failed, guaranteeing that the partial government shutdown will become the longest in history.

With no headway made over funding President Donald Trump’s border wall, Republican and Democratic leaders have begun to take seriously the president’s threat to declare a national emergency to bypass Congress and secure billions of dollars for a border barrier. No bipartisan talks are scheduled, and the president and Democratic leaders have not budged an inch from their positions in three weeks.

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Yet Trump seems to be keeping the onus strictly on his discussions with Democratic leaders and appeared Friday to rule out a quick emergency order. The president said he’s “not going to do it so fast” after lawmakers braced for him to move as soon as this weekend.

“We want Congress to do its job,” Trump said on Friday afternoon. “What we’re not looking to do right now is national emergency.”

Trump’s decision to leave it to Congress does not simplify things. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer held a series of increasingly unproductive meetings with him so far this year, and no one else is talking to each other. The Senate and House won’t return until Monday, essentially guaranteeing the shutdown will eclipse the previous longest funding lapse of 21 days. Monday will be the 24th day of a partial shutdown.

Though both Trump and congressional Democrats seem comfortable with their political position as the shutdown lingers, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said Friday that “nobody is winning.”

“I’ve got a lot of people that are saying, Lisa, you got to stand with the president, you got to be strong on this,” she said. “Then I have an equal number that are saying, please, please, do something to help reopen this government.”

But that’s proved impossible. The usual players in bipartisan talks, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are sidelined. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is deferring to Schumer. There’s no bipartisan gang coming to save the shuttered federal departments.

“What good is it if the president isn’t on board? And we’ve learned in the past that’s an iffy proposition,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), whose own immigration compromise was killed by Trump last year. “If it persists, I think they’re going to have to consider [a veto override] more and more. It’s ridiculous.”

But GOP senators and aides say a veto override isn’t realistic either. And many had been pinning their hopes that Trump would act unilaterally to at least get things moving again.

Trump’s executive action would set off a scramble of legal action by House Democrats. Republicans are divided over whether to restrain the president: Some believe it would claw away power from Congress, but others think it will be an elegant way out of the shutdown.

“Mr. President, declare a national emergency now. Build a wall now,” Graham said after meeting with Trump Friday.

But other Republicans cautioned the president against taking such a drastic move, and the divisions among his allies could be hamstringing his decision to move quickly.

“Even if the president’s got authority to do it, I’d advise against it. And I would think that each side ought to be laying something on the table and negotiating,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the most senior GOP senator.

He declined to say if he would vote to block the president from doing so and said it’s likely a negotiating tactic: “The president sees it more as a lever to get things on the table and get negotiations going.”

People in both parties seem hopeful that the emergency declaration would at least restart the government, even if it’s legally dubious.

“Declaring it an emergency, I suppose, serves a political function for him but then it relocates the whole controversy into the courts,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee. “If that’s what it takes to reopen the government, most of us will probably stomach our misgivings about it and hope that the rule of law will prevail.”

Some GOP lawmakers openly worry about potential accusations of hypocrisy after Republicans denounced Obama’s previous use of executive actions. Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) said he’d “be going nuts” if President Obama had discussed the tactic.

If Trump declares a national emergency, some House conservatives are warning that it doesn’t guarantee that the president will sign legislation to reopen the government.

Two leaders of the House Freedom Caucus, Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), both signaled Friday that they wouldn’t vote to reopen the government unless Congress can secure its own wall funding money.

“We need to focus on a legislative appropriation for the border security wall, just like we said. That’s the best approach,” Jordan said.

Other GOP lawmakers, though, said the House would likely rubber stamp a funding bill if Trump asks.

“If he wants to do the declaration and open the government at the same time, I suspect that we’ll do that,” Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said.

The stakes for the shutdown are ratcheting up, as roughly 800,000 federal workers face their first day without a paycheck Friday, which some frustrated lawmakers hope will create new urgency for both sides to resume dealmaking after an unprecedented four weeks of impasse. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) was one of the few senators in town on Friday, and he spent the morning telling stories about affected constituents.

He called on the government to reopen and then “engage with the president in a meaningful, short-term, prompt dialogue about border security and immigration reform.” But it may take more time for the pressure to build.

“The problem is, there’s no pressure yet. Nobody’s missed a paycheck until Friday,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said. “We’re getting a lot of phone calls from federal employees who are worried.” He added that when federal workers don’t receive a paycheck, “I think the pressure is going to build.”

Simpson, who sits on the House spending panel, said he is so frustrated that he’s begun talking with House Democratic leaders about other ways out of the shutdown. One of his ideas is to bring up a slate of pre-negotiated funding bills that could reopen pieces of the government.

McConnell has said those bills won’t go anywhere unless the president endorses them. And Trump killed his party’s own attempt to reopen the government and then kickstart negotiations on the wall and immigration reform. GOP Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Jerry Moran of Kansas introduced a bill that has $25 billion in border security in exchange for temporary protections for Dreamers on Friday, which they hoped could help restart talks but is miles away from anything Democrats would support.

Democratic Reps. Gerry Connolly and Don Beyer of Virginia, both of whom have sizeable federal worker populations in their district, said they’ve been hearing from constituents about the personal fallout from the shutdown. But those federal employees are also very clear, both members said, that they don’t want to be used “as pawns” by the president to build his border wall.

“I think people are really reluctant to cave on this for the fear of setting a precedent for years to come with Donald Trump. If he doesn’t like something, he’ll shut the government down,” Beyer said.

Before skipping town, the Senate approved a bill Thursday providing backpay for federal workers affected by the shutdown, at the behest of Democrats including Kaine and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). The House passed that same bill Friday, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the president assured him he’d sign the bill.

The promise of backpay would help ease financial uncertainty for scores of furloughed workers in Washington and in farm bureaus, national parks and federal courts across the country. Thousands of contracted workers, such as those who are hired to prepare food, clean, or provide security for federal agencies, have no such guarantee.

The House voted Friday on its fourth piecemeal funding bill of the week to reopen slices of the federal government, which have all gradually picked off more GOP defections. Ten Republicans voted with Democrats. The Senate held no votes Friday, and there was no sign of any of the top leaders in their Capitol suites.

Melanie Zanona contributed reporting to this story.

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