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Lots of blame, no solutions on Capitol Hill as shutdown drags on

Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., speaks to KTUL from Capitol Hill on Jan. 26, 2019. (KTUL)

Republicans claimed Wednesday the only reason about a quarter of the federal government remains closed is because Democratic leaders refuse to negotiate with President Donald Trump over funding for a wall on the nation’s southern border.

“This shutdown can be over in a matter of minutes, but we can’t have a process where Democrats don’t even offer a plan,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill.

Democrats say Senate Republicans’ unwillingness to even hold a vote on their own appropriations bills is what has kept the Department of Homeland Security and several other agencies shuttered since before Christmas.

“It’s basically holding the American people and federal employees hostage until you get what you want,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich.

The new Democratic majority in the House has been passing funding bills Senate Republicans crafted last fall in an attempt to pressure the upper chamber to defy Trump. So far, most Republicans have stayed united behind the White House.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., said he is growing out his beard as long as the departments stay closed by what he described as a “political shutdown.”

“#BorderBeard,” he said. “I want it showing the president support and to bring awareness to what’s going on on the southern border.”

The shutdown, already the longest in history, is nearing the end of its fourth week, and the Trump administration is calling in more federal employees to work without pay to mitigate its effects. The president has so far resisted calls to table the debate over the border wall, one of his most memorable campaign promises, and he has at times threatened to let government agencies, including the Border Patrol, go unfunded for years if that is what it takes to get the money.

“It is becoming more and more obvious that the Radical Democrats are a Party of open borders and crime. They want nothing to do with the major Humanitarian Crisis on our Southern Border. #2020!” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning.

What began with minor inconveniences like uncleaned national park bathrooms has begun to take a heavier toll after federal workers missed their first paycheck last week. A significant increase in unpaid TSA screeners calling in sick has closed terminals at some airports in recent days and caused hourslong lines at others.

Congress has already approved backpay for those who are working and those who have been furloughed whenever the government reopens. For some with health care bills, mortgages, and other debts, that may not come soon enough.

Mullin has introduced legislation that would specifically restore funding for health care programs for Native Americans. He has 19 tribes in his district, and he noted this funding is a long-standing federal obligation under treaties signed by the government.

“When you stop funding them, they cease to exist, and then the health care for these tribes no longer exists so you’re putting lives at risk during this shutdown,” he said.

Several recent polls have shown Trump is the one Americans blame most for the shutdown. The president declaring on camera in the Oval Office in December that he would be proud to shut down the government has not helped GOP efforts to counter that perception.

“We’ve been hearing from President Trump he wanted this shutdown,” Peters said.

Still, Republicans on Capitol Hill have attempted to lay responsibility entirely at the feet of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. They point to Trump’s offer of about $6 billion for humanitarian aid and other measures to help migrants waiting for processing at the border in addition to the wall funds as proof he is open to negotiations and Democrats are not.

“That’s simply not the way you get something done in divided government,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. “Frankly, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer seem to be more focused on giving the president a political defeat than they are on securing our southern border and addressing the crisis we face with so many migrant families trying to cross our border.”

Last fall, Senate appropriators agreed on providing about $2 billion for border security in 2019, including $1.6 billion specifically for pedestrian fencing, which is what the White House has originally requested. The House GOP bill, opposed by Democrats, contained more than $5 billion for border security.

Trump has since settled on $5.7 billion for walls, fences, or other barriers as his demand. According to DHS, that would be enough to build over 200 miles of walls in ten areas that have been identified as top security priorities.

The White House has argued a humanitarian and security crisis situation that has developed at the border justifies seeking more than three times the amount it requested previously. Democrats say that crisis has been manufactured by the administration.

“We all agree on border security,” Peters said. “There’s nothing more important than having strong borders... Where we do have some disagreements as to how do we best do that and spend taxpayer money most effectively, and we should have that debate, but there’s absolutely no reason to shut down the government while you’re having that debate.”

Lawmakers have been at an impasse for weeks. Trump maintains he will not sign any bill that reopens the government without $5.7 billion in wall funding. Democrats say they will not give him any money for a wall. And congressional Republicans insist Trump and Democrats have to work out a solution between themselves.

“President Trump keeps trying to compromise and compromise and compromise, and now we have a situation in which other people insist apparently on allowing more and more people across the border,” said Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis.

Democrats say they do support securing the border, but they do not believe more physical barriers are the way to do it. Many current opponents of Trump’s plan supported the construction of more than 650 miles of border fencing a decade ago, and they have voted for comprehensive immigration reform proposals that would have included more fences.

During the Obama administration, DHS said the barriers built under the 2006 Secure Fence Act were sufficient to provide control of the border. Trump’s DHS says much of that fencing needs to be repaired or fortified, along with about 300 miles of additional walls.

“I think if you actually look at the topography of the southern border, there’s a need for physical border security in some sectors,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis. “The Democrats used to acknowledge that and now it seems they’re going back on that.”

Some Republicans have downplayed the amount of new barriers Trump is seeking. The $5.7 billion would fund 215 miles of walls, which is about 10 percent of the 2,000-mile border. Still, others say that new fencing is vital to the survival of the country.

“For Donald Trump to just say, ‘I’ve gone two years without new wall funding, I’m satisfied to go another two years,’ would really be the end of America,” Grothman said.

Republicans have also adopted the argument that $5.7 billion is not really that much money in the broader context of a multi-trillion-dollar federal budget.

“It’s like one-seventh of what we spend every year on foreign aid and almost nobody complains we spend seven times as much on foreign aid, and that’s year after year after year, not a one-time construction program,” Grothman said.

Trump aides have said he believes building a wall is essential for his re-election campaign, and the president’s allies on Capitol Hill have warned it could effectively mean the end of his presidency if he loses this fight. Democrats have a similar political motivation to oppose wall funding, but the timing of the shutdown has also made it the first test of Speaker Pelosi’s leadership of the House Democratic caucus, and it is one she cannot afford to fail.

Democrats have expressed concerns about giving Trump what he wants and validating his use of a shutdown as a negotiation tactic. They have at least one more appropriations fight ahead before the 2020 election and they do not want to face shutdown threats again this fall.

“We know you should never negotiate with someone holding people hostage because, if you do that, they will continue to use that technique over and over again,” Peters said.

As the potential economic, political, and social consequences of a prolonged shutdown become clearer, members of both parties say they are eager to reach some sort of agreement but neither side has shown any indication it is wavering from its position on wall funding.

“I think you could take a random sample of people in northeast Wisconsin, get them in a room, and we could solve this thing in five minutes,” Gallagher said.

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