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Shutdown impact spreads as Trump, Democrats appeal to their bases

Several dozen federal employees and supporters demonstrated at the Sacramento International Airport calling for President Donald Trump and Washington lawmakers to end then partial government shutdown, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019, in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Although the ramifications of a partial government shutdown are spreading, polls show most American still are not feeling any direct impacts, and as long as that remains true, experts say lawmakers have little incentive to waver from the increasingly rigid positions they have staked out on border wall funding.

The shutdown, which affects about a quarter of the government and more than 800,000 federal employees, began nearly four weeks ago amid a dispute between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats over the 2019 Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill. Trump is demanding $5.7 billion for border barrier construction, but Democrats are offering only $1.3 billion for other border security measures.

According to a new ScottRasmussen.com poll, 15 percent of voters say they have personally felt a major impact from the shutdown, up from just 6 percent in late December but still relatively small. About 20 percent have experienced minor impacts, while 67 percent see little or no consequences.

“The impact is starting to spread, but because most people aren’t feeling it directly in their lives, the shutdown story seems pretty distant,” Rasmussen said in an interview.

Like other recent surveys, the poll shows public opinion overall favoring the Democrats’ position that the government agencies should reopen. Nearly seven in ten voters say ending the shutdown is a higher priority than funding a border wall, but 58 percent of Republicans say the wall is more important.

“Right now, what our polling shows is both teams have their base supporting them and that’s why nobody is moving,” he said.

(If you are viewing on a mobile app, click here to take the poll.)

Neither side of the fight has left themselves with much wiggle room, even as they talk of the need for negotiations and compromises. Trump will not sign a bill that does not include billions of dollars for walls of some sort, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will not give him one cent for a wall, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will not allow a vote on anything Trump will not sign.

“You either have to get enough Democrats in the House to go with the Republicans—but that’s hard to envision given the way Nancy Pelosi tends to run that caucus and get revenge—or 60 senators have to come up with something,” said Gary Nordlinger, a political consultant and professional in residence at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.

Trump recently put forward an offer that includes about $6 billion for humanitarian aid for migrants and other Democratic priorities in addition to the wall money. Republicans say Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have not presented a counteroffer.

“I don’t like shutdowns, but you’ve got to come to the table to make it happen and they’re just not doing that,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill.

Democrats maintain they will not negotiate on border security funding until the government reopens.

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

Because the shutdown started days before Christmas, few immediate consequences were felt during the holiday weeks when many workers would have been off anyway. More than 300,000 federal employees whose positions are deemed essential have continued working without compensation, though, and they missed their first full paycheck last Friday.

The Trump administration has attempted to mitigate some of the most visible consequences of the shutdown, diverting funds to help maintain national parks, calling in furloughed IRS employees to ensure tax refunds are sent on schedule, and finding ways to keep food stamps funded while most of the Department of Agriculture is shuttered. TSA screeners are calling in sick at twice their normal rate, though, and some airports have had to temporarily close terminals due to understaffing.

Democrats have worked to highlight the struggles of federal employees facing bills and debts they cannot pay, including those who are trying to treat illnesses, feed their families, and keep their homes. Congress has already approved backpay to be provided after the shutdown ends for employees who are still working and those who are furloughed, but nobody knows when that will be.

Some members of Congress say the shutdown is taking a toll on their constituents.

“Take a look at what’s happening today in Oregon,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. “Trainings for fighting fires are being canceled, and we have contractors that are doing thinning to make the woods more fire-resistant, prescribed burns are being postponed... All those things can greatly increase the ferocity of fires next summer.”

Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., said lack of funding for the Indian Health Service could endanger the tribes in his district that rely on rural hospitals for care.

“There are no other options for the individuals to go get healthcare,” Mullin said. “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.”

Although only 800,000 Americans are missing paychecks because of the shutdown, but Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., warned their loss of income could affect millions of others across the country.

“It’s not just workers,” she said. “It’s their families, it’s their communities, it’s the businesses they support with their paychecks, their rent, car payments.”

According to Rasmussen, most Americans feel badly about all that and want employees to get paid for their work, but they are not feeling the same urgency the media seems to about it.

“I almost get the feeling when you’re watching the negotiations and the breathless coverage of the negotiations, it’s as if we’re reliving the Cuban Missile Crisis,” he said. “Most Americans aren’t seeing it as that significant.”

That could change, though, if things get worse in the weeks and months ahead.

“When and if flights get cancelled, airports close, or there is a major food safety issue or some other crisis or emergency as a result of this breakdown, the equation will change,” said Bob Mann, a former Senate press secretary and a professor of political science at Louisiana State University.

With only 25 percent of the government closed and nearly half of the workers at those agencies still working unpaid, the consequences will likely stay relatively narrow for a while and members of Congress in many parts of the country may not face much pressure to alleviate them.

“I hate to say it, but people will have to start dying from food poisoning and planes will have to start crashing into each other before this becomes properly dramatic,” Nordlinger said.

This week, the White House revised its projections for the economic cost of the shutdown, suggesting it could do twice as much financial damage as first estimated. With no end in sight, Wall Street analysts are now warning a prolonged shutdown could plunge the country into a recession.

Polls consistently show more Americans blame Trump for the impasse than Democrats, but opinions on the shutdown and the border wall are becoming increasingly polarized, with most Republicans still backing Trump’s refusal to sign a spending bill without wall money. However, Rasmussen noted support is softening among those who say they “somewhat approve” of Trump’s performance as president, with 55 percent of them saying ending the shutdown matters most.

“Both sides appear to be listening to their respective bases and what they seem to hear is: hold fast,” Mann said. “The polls suggest that Trump is suffering from this more than the Democrats. In a normal world, you’d expect he’d be looking for a way to compromise, but there’s been no sign of that yet.”

Still, there are risks for Democrats as Republicans slam them for refusing to negotiate. Dysfunction in the Trump administration is nothing new, but Democrats took control of the House with the expectation they would be the adults in the room.

“The people who voted for the new Congress did so because they were fed up with the government not working,” said Stephanie Martin, editor of “Columns to Characters: The Presidency and the Press Enter the Digital Age” and a professor of communication studies at Southern Methodist University. “So as this new government takes shape, if this goes on for too long, Democrats run the risk of seeming like they can’t bring Trump under control, which is what they promised to do.”

Nordlinger stressed the results of the midterms were less an endorsement of the Democratic agenda than a rebuke of Trump. As the president and Pelosi seek to cancel each other’s events while failing to perform the basic task of keeping the government open, some may be regretting that choice.

“If there’s one thing the majority of the country hates, it’s this sort of shenanigans,” he said. “Government should not be shutting down, in the minds of most people, and it’s a pox on both their houses.”

So far, congressional Republicans have largely avoided responsibility for the standoff, despite attempts by Democrats to turn the spotlight on McConnell’s refusal to take up spending bills passed by the House. With a few moderate GOP senators already floating compromises that would reopen the affected agencies at least temporarily, patience may be wearing thin.

“One thing that could change is that a dozen or so senators up in 2020 finally decide this has gone on too long and they cut their losses and move to bring up the apropos bill that passed unanimously. A few more weeks of this, and that might become more plausible,” Mann said.

However and whenever all this ends, Rasmussen doubts anybody will emerge from the fight looking like a winner in the eyes of voters.

“It’s like when you’re a parent, you have some unruly children you have to deal with, and voters are looking at the politicians that way now and saying, ‘Come on, grow up and act like adults,’” he said.

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