Congress punts shutdown into new year, when Democrats will retake the House

On Day 6 of the partial government shutdown, House members were told to expect no votes this week.
President Trump stops to talk to members of the media as he walks to board Marine One and depart from the South Lawn of the White House in October 2018. Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

WASHINGTON - Congress effectively gave up Thursday on breaking the impasse over President Donald Trump's demands for border-wall funding, all but ensuring that the partial government shutdown will stretch at least into the start of the new year, when Democrats retake control of the House.

Trump retreated from public view, hurling insults at Democrats over Twitter, as the House and the Senate convened for just minutes before gaveling closed until next week. During the brief session in the House, Republicans shot down a Democratic attempt to vote on legislation to reopen the government.

The halls of the Capitol were largely vacant, and leaders' offices were shuttered. There was no sign that negotiations were taking place. Instead, the two sides traded public recriminations.

Trump, in one of a series of Twitter attacks on Democrats, claimed that the dispute isn't even about the wall he long claimed Mexico would pay for. "This is only about the Dems not letting Donald Trump & the Republicans have a win," he wrote.

Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the Democrat who was denied on the House floor as he sought a vote to fund the government, said that it was urgent to end the shutdown, adding: "The only people who don't seem to be in any hurry are the Republican leadership and the president."

The country on Thursday entered the sixth day of a government shutdown that has closed a quarter of the federal government and furloughed an estimated 350,000 workers, sending them home at risk of losing paychecks during the holiday season. Barring a surprise resolution, it will become the second-longest shutdown of the decade when the new, divided Congress convenes next week to open its 116th session.

"We have not been able to reach agreement, with regards to the leadership on both sides," Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told reporters after presiding over a pro forma session in the Senate that lasted less than four minutes.

"In Dodge City, Kansas, they say a horse divided against itself cannot stand," Roberts added. "That's about where we are."

Around the federal government, the effects were spreading, even though the bulk of the government - including the Pentagon, the Health and Human Services Department and Congress itself - has been funded through September, thanks to spending bills passed earlier in the year and signed by Trump.

The Office of Personnel Management sent out a Twitter post Thursday in which it shared advice and letter templates for federal workers to use in negotiating for deferred rent and payments to other creditors.

"As we discussed, I am a Federal employee who has recently been furloughed due to a lack of funding of my agency. Because of this, my income has been severely cut and I am unable to pay the entire cost of my rent, along with my other expenses," one of the sample letters says. It also suggests the possibility of doing building chores in exchange for reduced payments.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Smithsonian museums, two departments that had followed the White House's direction to find money to stay open as long as possible, announced Thursday that reserve funds that had carried them through this week will end, shuttering the EPA on Friday at midnight and the museum and the National Zoo starting Wednesday.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said the National Flood Insurance Program would not issue new policies during the shutdown, a potential nightmare for would-be home buyers who need the insurance before closing. Lawmakers from both parties have ripped the decision and called on the agency to reopen the program.

The signs of surrender were littered across the Capitol on Thursday. By midafternoon, a pile of mail lay at the doors to the offices of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the same as it did in front of an office for senior advisers to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Neither leader has appeared in the Capitol, nor did their House counterparts, Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Ryan, who is retiring next week, has not made any public comment since Saturday evening, when he said "the bill is over there," pointing to the Senate and saying it was up to that chamber to take the next step.

Earlier Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence visited Schumer for what has been the last face-to-face bipartisan talks, a brief meeting at which Pence made a new offer that included about half of Trump's original request for $5 billion in wall funding. Democrats rejected that, still holding firm that no funds go toward a wall, and they also accused Pence of not being capable of guaranteeing the president's support for his negotiating.

"Different people from the same White House are saying different things about what the president would accept or not accept," Pelosi and Schumer said Wednesday in a joint statement.

Trump's position is a critical roadblock to any negotiating. Democrats do not want to support something presented by Pence, only to have Trump balk at the idea and then move the goal posts farther right because of the apparent Democratic concession.

And congressional Republicans are adamant that they will not get caught flat-footed like last week, when the Senate unanimously approved a temporary funding plan to keep the entire government open through Feb. 8, only to learn later that Trump would veto the bill because it did not have funds for a wall.

"It's clear that we on the Republican side, we do not want to vote for a bill that the president won't sign," Roberts said.

Roberts was one of just five lawmakers spotted Thursday in the Capitol, where tourists filled the building because Congress included its own funding plan in earlier legislation that has provided full budgets for 75 percent of federal agencies.

Roberts, 82, has a home in suburban Virginia, making him the closest Republican to the Senate and leaving him on standby to oversee these brief sessions. He came in Christmas Eve morning and might be called back for a pro forma session on New Year's Eve.

"Looks like a full-time job. I get them in, get them out," he said.

The Senate will not return for a legislative session until the afternoon of Jan. 2, on the eve of the handover of power to Democrats in the House. That allows one last window to reopen the government before Democrats take control, in the unlikely event a deal is reached before then.

About 25 percent of the federal government has been shut down since Saturday, with roughly 800,000 workers affected, including an estimated 350,000 who are on furlough at home. At the heart of the stalemate is Trump's demand for $5 billion in funding for his proposed wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. Congressional Democrats have rejected that figure and in recent weeks have refused to publicly endorse a figure above $1.3 billion, which continues existing funding levels and includes money for new border fencing and levee walls, but not the concrete wall Trump once demanded before he started more recently talking about "steel slats."

The Democrats' plan is to put a bill that funds the government, without money for Trump's wall, on the floor Jan. 3, the first day of the new session of Congress.

The legislation would probably extend government funding through Feb. 8, according to a Democratic aide, mirroring the bipartisan bill the Senate passed last week before Trump withdrew his support, starting the chain of events that ended in the shutdown.

The Senate, which will remain under GOP control, would have to repass that legislation in January - and Trump would have to sign it - in order for the government to reopen. Neither outcome is assured, given Trump's opposition to legislation that does not provide the border funding he wants, a stance the White House reiterated in a statement Thursday from press secretary Sarah Sanders. That leaves it uncertain how the standoff will get resolved in the new Congress.

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Thursday, 47 percent of adults hold Trump responsible for the shutdown, while 33 percent blame Democrats in Congress, and 7 percent blame congressional Republicans. The poll was conducted Dec. 21-25, mostly after the shutdown began.

Another Trump tweet on Thursday claiming most furloughed workers are Democrats prompted criticism from some party members who argued that federal workers are not the partisans the president has made them out to be.

"This is outrageous," Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said in a tweet. "Federal employees don't go to work wearing red or blue jerseys. They're public servants. And the President is treating them like poker chips at one of his failed casinos."

This article was written by Paul Kane, Erica Werner and Felicia Sonmez, reporters for The Washington Post.