It’s looking increasingly like the partial government shutdown will be handed off to a divided government to solve in the new year — the first big confrontation between President Donald Trump and Democrats — as agreement eludes Washington in the waning days of the Republican monopoly on power.
Now nearly a week old, the impasse is idling hundreds of thousands of federal workers and beginning to pinch citizens who count on varied public services. Gates are closed at some national parks, the government won’t issue new federal flood insurance policies and in New York, the chief judge of Manhattan federal courts suspended work on civil cases involving U.S. government lawyers, including several civil lawsuits in which Trump himself is a defendant.
Congress is closing out the week without a resolution in sight over the issue holding up an agreement — Trump’s demand for money to build a border wall with Mexico and Democrats’ refusal to give him what he wants.
That sets up a struggle upfront when Democrats take control of the House on Jan. 3. Trump has signaled he welcomes the fight as he heads toward his own bid for re-election in 2020.
“This isn’t about the Wall,” Trump tweeted Thursday. “This is only about the Dems not letting Donald Trump & the Republicans have a win.” He added Democrats may be able to block him now, “but we have the issue, Border Security. 2020!”
With another long holiday weekend coming, just days before House Republicans relinquish control, there is little expectation of a quick fix. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has vowed to pass legislation as soon as she takes the gavel, which is expected when the new Congress convenes, to reopen the 15 shuttered departments and dozens of agencies now hit by the partial shutdown.
“If they can’t do it before January 3, then we will do it,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., incoming chairman of the Rules Committee. “We’re going to do the responsible thing. We’re going to behave like adults and do our job.”
But even that may be difficult without a compromise because the Senate will remain in Republican hands and Trump’s signature will be needed to turn any bill into law. Negotiations continue between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, but there’s only so much Congress can do without the president.
Trump is not budging, having panned Democratic offers to keep money at current levels — $1.3 billion for border fencing, but not the wall. Senate Republicans approved that compromise in an earlier bill with Democrats but now say they won’t be voting on any more unless something is agreed to by all sides, including Trump.
“I think it’s obvious that until the president decides he can sign something — or something is presented to him — that we are where we are,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who opened the Senate on Thursday for a session that only lasted minutes.
“Call it anything,” he added, “barrier, fence, I won’t say the ‘w’ word.”
Trump long promised that Mexico would pay for the wall, but Mexico refuses to do so.
Federal workers and contractors forced to stay home or work without pay are experiencing mounting stress from the impasse.
As the partial shutdown stretched toward a second week, Ethan James, 21, a minimum-wage contractor sidelined from his job as an office worker at the Interior Department, wondered if he’d be able to make his rent. Contractors, unlike most federal employees, may never get back pay for being idled. “I’m getting nervous,” he said. “I live check to check right now.”
For those without a financial cushion, even a few days of lost wages during the shutdown could have dire consequences.
Roughly federal 420,000 workers were deemed essential and are working unpaid, unable to take any sick days or vacation. An additional 380,000 are staying home without pay.
Like James, Mary Morrow, a components engineer on contract for NASA, is in a predicament. In addition to caring for a family largely on her own, she’s got a mortgage.
“I have three teenage boys, it’s near Christmas time and we just spent money, there are credit card bills and normal bills and it’s really nerve-wracking,” she said. “It’s scary.”
Steve Reaves, president of Federal Emergency Management Agency union, said the shutdown could have consequences that stretch beyond a temporary suspension of salary. Many federal government jobs require a security clearance, he said, and missed mortgage payments or deepening debt could hurt their clearance.
David Dollard, a Federal Bureau of Prisons employee and chief steward for the American Federation of Government Employees Local 709 union in Colorado, said at least two agency employees lost their homes after the 2013 shutdown suspended their salaries. Bureau of Prisons employees are considered essential, and must work without pay. The agency is already understaffed, Dollard said. Shutdown conditions make everything worse.
“You start out at $44,000 a year, there’s not much room for anything else as far saving money for the next government shutdown, so it puts staff in a very hard situation,” he said. “We’ve got single fathers who have child support, alimony. It’s very hard to figure out what you’re going to do.”
Candice Nesbitt, 51, has worked for 1½ years for the U.S. Coast Guard, the only branch of the military affected by the shutdown. About 44,000 Coast Guard employees are working this week without pay; 6,000, including Nesbitt, have been furloughed.
Nesbitt worked for a contractor but took a pay cut in exchange for the stability of a government job. She has a mortgage, is the guardian of her special needs, 5-year-old grandson, and makes about $45,000 a year, she said. Any lapse in payment could plunge her into debt. “It shakes me to the core,” she said.