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Day 25 of the shutdown and the impasse held fast

Spending bill fails, president holds firm, House freshmen march

Freshman House members, including Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., leave the Capitol office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday after a visit to urge action on reopening the government. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Freshman House members, including Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., leave the Capitol office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday after a visit to urge action on reopening the government. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

On the 25th day of the longest government shutdown in modern history, the House failed to advance a spending measure, the president was half-stood up for lunch, and freshman House Democrats marched on the Senate. 

In an already busy day on Capitol Hill, the House failed to advance a stopgap measure to fund shuttered federal agencies through Feb. 1, as Democrats sought to pressure Republicans to end the partial shutdown. 

Democratic leaders brought the continuing resolution to the floor Tuesday under suspension of the rules, a streamlined process that requires a two-thirds majority vote. The final tally was 237-187.

Only six Republicans voted for the CR: New York Reps. John Katko and Elise Stefanik, Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, Texas Rep. Will Hurd, Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler and New Jersey Rep. Christopher H. Smith.

All six Republicans have voted for other spending bills Democrats have brought to the floor in recent weeks in attempts to reopen the government. This was the least GOP support any of the spending bills has received other than a CR to reopen the Department of Homeland Security through Feb. 8, which received five Republican “yes” votes.

Tuesday’s effort was the Democrats’ first of three tries this week. “The point is we want to get government open,” House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey of New York said. 

Republicans have dismissed the attempt as a stunt. President Donald Trump and GOP leaders have said they would not support reopening government until there is a bipartisan deal on border security.

“The only thing I see on the floor this week is political theater, and it’s unacceptable,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said of the effort headed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “It’s going nowhere in the Senate. It’s prolonging the shutdown.”

With the latest continuing resolution defeated, House Democrats plan to offer another one Wednesday that funds government through Feb. 8, as part of a $12.14 billion disaster aid bill, according to Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer. A third measure, planned for Thursday, would fund shuttered agencies even longer, through Feb. 28.

No lunch for you

In another sign of partisan gridlock, a group of moderate House Democrats boycotted a White House lunch President Donald Trump hosted Tuesday to continue border security negotiations. “Unfortunately, no Democrats will attend,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

Trump broke bread with nine House Republicans instead: Katko, Susan W. Brooks of Indiana, Rodney Davis of Illinois, Doug Collins of Georgia, Brad Wenstrup of Ohio, Jodey C. Arrington and Van Taylor of Texas, Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, and Clay Higgins of Louisiana.

“We do want to get to the table,” Wenstrup said after the lunch. “I thought I was coming to a bipartisan luncheon. No Democrats showed up.”

March on McConnell

Meanwhile, a group of roughly a dozen freshman House Democrats on Tuesday marched to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office in the Capitol to ask that he take up House bills to open up government.

The Kentucky Republican was on the Senate floor when the freshmen stopped by his office, but his staff welcomed them inside. The staff chatted briefly with the lawmakers and said they would set up a meeting with the majority leader.

McConnell has been firm on his position on reopening the government.

“The solution to the problem is for the president of the United States, the only person of the 330 million or so of us who can sign something into law, [to reach] an agreement with the Democratic majority in the House and enough Democrats in the Senate,” the Kentucky Republican said Tuesday. “There’s no way around that. Having show votes in a Senate doesn’t solve the problem.”

What McConnell refers to as “show votes” is what the freshman Democrats say is leadership. At a hastily organized press conference, they called on him to break from Trump and consider the House-passed bills.

“They are not employees of Trump Tower,” Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley said of McConnell and GOP senators. She added that the White House has left the American people in the cold with the shutdown, which she called “a man-made tsunami of hurt.”

New Hampshire Rep. Chris Pappas said voters elected the freshman class to change how Washington works, and the shutdown was a prime example of why it needs fixing.

“This is Washington politics at its worst,” he said. “This is a national embarrassment. We’ve got to end this as quickly as we can.”

Reps. Katie Hill of California and Joe Neguse of Colorado, the Demorats’ freshman leadership representatives, led the press conference. Neguse said they plan to follow up with a letter to McConnell on Wednesday.

Previously on the 116th Congress …

The Democrat-controlled House has already voted for a slew of bills aimed at reopening government, all of which have been blocked in the Republican-controlled Senate because they lack border wall funding.

The House first passed a package of six bipartisan Senate-crafted bills, before taking up four of those bills individually last week. Those were the Financial Services, Transportation-HUD, Agriculture and Interior-Environment measures.

Democrats appeared to be hoping that the longer the shutdown continues, the more political pressure Republicans will feel to relent and let federal agencies reopen. Hoyer said the House will forgo its planned recess next week if the shutdown continues, and McConnell said his chamber would also remain in session unless there’s a deal.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, tried again to bring the House-passed bills up for a vote, but McConnell objected on the grounds they stood no chance of becoming law. “For the Senate Republicans to participate in something that doesn’t lead to an outcome strikes me as something the Senate ought not to be involved in,” he said.

And as the shutdown continued, Congress continued to grapple with the harm it is causing and the potential for more serious damage. The Transportation Security Administration reported Tuesday a spike in absences of airport screeners, who are being forced to work without pay until the shutdown ends. About 6.8 percent of screeners were absent from work Monday, compared to 2.5 percent on the same day a year ago, the agency said.

Perhaps the biggest threat to many low-income residents was the risk that food stamp benefits would be cut off in March if the shutdown continued next month. Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa said the administration and Congress “better have something ready for 42 million people that might not get food stamps after March 1.”

Spending caps deal?

Meanwhile, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby suggested that bringing in a broader discussion of discretionary spending limits for the next budget cycle might unlock a deal to reopen the nine Cabinet departments closed since Dec. 22.

“I think it’s worth a positive discussion,” the Alabama Republican said Tuesday. “It’s not on the table. It hasn’t reached that point yet. … It would be a possible way out.”

While lawmakers are having trouble wrapping up this year’s spending bills, they are still walking into a dicey situation in fiscal 2020, starting Oct. 1. That’s because the most recent two-year budget deal doesn’t cover next year’s budget or fiscal 2021, meaning budget caps will fall off a cliff to the tune of 11 percent below this year’s limit for defense programs and 9 percent for all nondefense accounts without further legislative action.

Wrapping a caps-raising deal into the shutdown talks, possibly giving Democrats adequate relief from the scheduled nondefense cuts and Trump additional military and border security funds next year and beyond, might be a face-saving option to break the impasse. That’s an emerging view at least among some Senate appropriators, including Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt.

“Sometimes when you’re stuck with a problem, you can solve the problem by finding out how to make it bigger,” the Missouri Republican said last week. “And one way to make it bigger would be, let’s talk about next year’s spending numbers as part of this.”

Senate Democrats didn’t seem interested in tying an end to the shutdown to a negotiated spending caps deal, however.

“I really hope that the opening of the government does not depend on a budget agreement,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said. “That isn’t fair to these people who work for our government. That is an important debate, but it should be separate.”

Jennifer Shutt, David Lerman, Kellie Mejdrich, Ellyn Ferguson and Jacob Fischler contributed to this report.

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