/Congress leaves town as federal workers miss their first paycheck

Congress leaves town as federal workers miss their first paycheck

Protesters gather outside the U.S. Capitol Building

People rally against the partial federal government shutdown outside the U.S. Capitol Thursday. Roughly 800,000 federal workers face their first day without a paycheck Friday. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Congress has 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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Trump’s executive action, which could be announced as early as this weekend, 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.

“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.”

But some GOP lawmakers openly worry about potential accusations of hypocrisy after Republicans denounced Obama’s previous use of executive actions.

“I’d be going nuts if President Obama had talked about doing this,” Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) said. “You’d have to go back and start pulling some precedent — what are those times? And what does that mean? And what are the limits on it? It’d be a big deal.”

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.

“Just because he declares a national emergency, doesn’t mean we don’t work to get a legislative solution,” Jordan said, adding that he wouldn’t vote to reopen the government simply because of the White House step. “No, I still think we need to focus on a legislative appropriation for the border security wall, just like we said. That’s the best approach.”

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

“The House Republicans will support whatever decision [Trump] decides to do. 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.

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. Senators who have in the past tried to strike bipartisan deals say it’s not worth it given Trump’s position.

“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 persists, I think they’re going to have to consider [a veto override] more and more. It’s ridiculous.”

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.

Yet 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.

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.

Approving legislation to eventually repay federal employees could lessen some of the PR backlash that lawmakers are feeling — particularly newly minted House Democrats who say they’re already feeling pressure to answer for the shutdown they inherited. Still, federal workers won’t see a dime of their paychecks until the 21-day shutdown ends.

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.