Walking alone down a third-floor hallway of the Capitol Building, Nita Lowey, a Democrat from New York, sighed heavily.
“This place is a crazy house,” she said under her breath.
It would be funny if it were not so true.
The federal government is four days into its first shutdown in 17 years, and Capitol Hill is feeling stubborn and frustrated. Republicans refuse to fund operations unless a key part of the 2010 federal health care law is delayed and congressional staffers are stripped of health care subsidies. Democrats aren’t budging from a demand that the government be fully funded — no strings attached.
So in the meantime, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have resorted to devoting resources to making the other side look as bad as possible. In a time when middle class federal workers are being furloughed without pay and essential government services are suspended, lawmakers spend more time racking up gotcha points than ending the crisis.
It’s not that there aren’t enough votes to end the shutdown today: This could all be over now if House Republican leaders would hold a vote to fund the government on the floor, but they refuse. There are, at this moment, enough Republicans and Democrats in the House who are willing to pass it. On Wednesday night, House Democrats — who agreed to support a bill that would fund the government at sequestration levels — tried to force a vote procedurally, but Republicans rejected them at every turn.
Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, however, doesn’t think there are enough House Democrats who would agree to support a continuing resolution (CR) at sequestration levels, which is what Senate Democrats passed last week and what House Democratic leaders have said they would support.
“Ask the Democrats in this House whether they support a clean CR with sequester or not. This assumption that ... somehow there is unanimity on the Democratic side that they would support a CR at sequester level is an assumption that I question,” Cantor said Thursday. “We’re trying to find the thing that we can agree on.”
Cantor’s skepticism raises the question: If you don’t think it will pass, why not just hold a vote and let it fail? Because Republicans are confident they can win this thing without having to do it, and here’s how: House Republican leaders are spending this week holding votes on bills that would fund popular government services, like the National Institutes of Health, the National Military Reserves, National Parks and monuments. They know Democrats in the Senate won’t play along, which gives Republicans an opportunity to accuse them of refusing to fund services for sick children, veterans and military service members.
Republicans appear confident this will ultimately prove to be a winning strategy. In a memo sent to House Republicans Thursday, Cantor urged his colleagues to press forward with the strategy of putting pressure on Democrats to support the piecemeal approach and predicted that Democrats would eventually buckle.
“I firmly believe their position is untenable,” Cantor wrote in the memo, obtained by Yahoo News. “Because their position is unsustainable and because we are willing to negotiate to find a reasonable resolution, I believe it is critical that we continue to engage and offer meaningful solutions for the American people. … I am confident that if we keep advancing common-sense solutions to the problems created by the shutdown that Senate Democrats and President Obama will eventually agree to meaningful discussions that would allow us to ultimately resolve this impasse.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid inadvertently handed Republicans a gift on Wednesday, when he snapped at a CNN reporter during a press conference who asked him why he would not agree to fund cancer trials for the NIH. Senate Democratic leaders were pushing back against Republican efforts to fund some programs and not others, when CNN’s Dana Bash asked, "If you can help one child with cancer, why wouldn't you?"
"Why pit one against the other?" New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said, prompting Reid to add: "Why would we want to do that? I have 1,100 people at Nellis Air Force base that are sitting home. They have a few problems of their own."
Reid, in his own cantankerous style, went on: “To have someone of your intelligence to suggest such a thing maybe means you’re irresponsible and reckless.”
Republicans and conservative media seized on Reid’s “why would we want to do that?” sound bite and accused him of not wanting to help sick children.
It was a classic gaffe: Reid’s remark sounded horrible, but it was clear that he was talking about giving one program priority over another in funding.
Still, the charge was powerful, and opportunistic politicians were happy not to give him the benefit of the doubt. On Thursday, a group of House Republicans, including Cantor, held a press conference next to a giant poster board that had a blurry screenshot of Reid’s press conference where he made the comment.
Joining Cantor were seven House Republicans with medical backgrounds dressed in white lab coats. Maryland Republican Rep. Andy Harris, an anesthesiologist from Baltimore, even brought along his stethoscope, which hung around his neck. Surrounded by the white coats, Cantor touted the passage of a House bill to fund the NIH, and called on Reid to accept it. A few hours later, at his own press conference, Reid and other Senate Democrats reiterated their opposition to picking and choosing programs to fund.
The push to fund critical services while keeping the rest of the government shut down comes after lawmakers spent an entire day highlighting that the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., an open space on the National Mall, had been closed off to veterans who flew thousands of miles to visit the site. On Tuesday, hundreds of intrepid wheelchair-bound veterans tore down the barricades around the memorial and rolled in, despite the closure. Sensing a sure photo opportunity, many lawmakers sped to the memorial and made sure to position themselves in front of television crews and reporters who were documenting the veterans’ civil disobedience.
On Wednesday afternoon, a group of House Republicans held an outdoor press conference on the West Terrace of the Capitol Building, which overlooks the National Mall and the monuments, and demanded the site be made available to visitors. Little did they know that during their press conference, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that the president was making an exception for visiting veterans. (Although the monuments are still technically closed, the veterans could visit under what the federal government calls a “First Amendment” exemption.)
For a brief time Thursday, all of the posturing — the press conferences, the stunts, the photo opps, the messaging — felt small when there were reports of a shooting outside the Capitol Building in the afternoon. It turned out that the gunshots were fired by a Capitol Police officer to stop a driver who police determined posed a threat to government facilities. But the incident did calm down the rhetoric for the afternoon. South Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Sanford, who had invited media and supporters to join him between popular memorials closed down in the city, canceled his plans.
Still, little that was public and substantive was done this week to reach a deal to fully fund the government. And just about everyone — including the Senate chaplain — is frustrated about it.
In his prayer to open Thursday’s congressional session, the Rev. Barry Black described recent events in the nation’s capital as “madness” and begged for mercy from on high.
"Have mercy on us, oh God, and save us from the madness,” Black prayed from the Senate floor. “We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness and our pride.”
He continued: "Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable. Remove the burdens of those who are the collateral damage of this government shutdown. Transforming negatives into positives as you work for the good of those who love you. We pray, in your merciful name, amen.”
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