WASHINGTON — As the government shutdown stretches into its 21st day — and is poised to become the longest in history while stranding 800,000 federal workers without pay — one Virginia representative tells WTOP that until Congress gets the job done and ends the three-week impasse, those politicians shouldn’t get paid either.
“It just seems like, to me, that reasonable people can get in a room together and find a place where there’s common ground,” U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, a Virginia Republican, told WTOP Friday morning.
Wittman said he’s advocated six years for a system wherein if Congress doesn’t agree on a budget, members don’t get paid.
“This is completely avoidable,” he told WTOP. “I believe Congress needs to pass ‘No Budget, No Pay.’ Get a budget done on time, when we should’ve done it, and if not, members of Congress shouldn’t get paid.”
“People have to do that … in everyday life. If you run a business, or in your relationships, people have to find common ground to get things done,” Wittman said. “I’m just disappointed that this isn’t the case.”
Battle on the Hill
The Democratic-controlled House has passed two bills to reopen parts of the government.
“The pressure is building and more people are signing on,” Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine told WTOP while visiting the Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center.
“As you guys know, the House has passed both bills to reopen government. In the Senate, all 47 Democrats are on board and five Republicans have said ‘Let’s stop the foolishness and reopen government,'” Kaine said.
Kaine explained that with mounting concern, federal workers not being paid and Congress members hearing from constituents back home, the chance for a breakthrough is “high” — but not until next week.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has said he will not allow bills to reach the Senate floor for a vote unless he’s sure President Donald Trump will sign them.
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat, urged McConnell on Thursday to allow a vote on a package of six spending bills the House passed shortly after Democrats regained control this month. He said the 800,000 federal workers who are either working without pay or who are furloughed deserve better.
“It’s like AT&T, Apple, Lockheed Martin, Google and Exxon Mobil laying off their entire workforce at one time,” Cardin said.
But McConnell called it a “political stunt” and said it would be useless to allow a vote that wouldn’t get Trump’s signature. The GOP lawmaker said simply, “This would not produce a result.”
Kaine is holding out hope that there is a way forward for Congress, even without the assurance of Trump-preapproved legislation.
“We’re the Article 1 branch, and as soon as enough senators say, ‘Hold on a second, we should reopen government, and then have the debate with the president about border security’ — I think that pressure will be strong,” he said. “And my prediction is this: Either we’ll bring the bill to the floor or Sen. McConnell will tell [the] president, ‘You’re losing Congress.'”
Kaine said that at that point, Trump may declare a national emergency, open government and then skirmish with Congress over using money the way he says he has the power to.
The House passed a bill Friday that will ensure that federal workers get paid for the hours they put in during the government shutdown. Trump is expected to sign it.
The House also passed a bill to reopen the Interior Department, National Park Service and Smithsonian Museums — which Trump is expected to veto.
The bill passed unanimously in the Senate Thursday night.
“It’s not the same as getting a paycheck, but we wanted to provide federal workers, at least, with the knowledge that they would be reimbursed for this time,” Kaine said.
The border wall
As of Friday, Trump appears to be edging closer to declaring a national emergency to fund his long-promised border wall.
Asked about the plight of those going without pay, the president shifted the focus, saying he felt bad “for people that have family members that have been killed” by criminals who came over the border.
Trump visited McAllen, Texas, and the Rio Grande on Thursday to highlight what he calls a crisis of drugs and crime. He said that “if for any reason we don’t get this going” — an agreement with House Democrats who have refused to approve the $5.7 billion he demands for the wall — “I will declare a national emergency.”
There is no evidence of an immigrant crime wave, though. Multiple studies from social scientists and the libertarian think tank Cato Institute have found that people in the U.S. illegally are less likely to commit crime than U.S. citizens are, and that those in the country legally are even less likely to do so.
Trump was consulting with White House attorneys and allies about using presidential emergency powers to take unilateral action to construct the wall over the objections of Congress. He claimed his lawyers told him the action would withstand legal scrutiny “100 percent.”
Such a move to bypass Congress’ constitutional control of the nation’s purse strings would spark certain legal challenges and bipartisan cries of executive overreach.
A congressional official said the White House has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to look for billions of dollars earmarked last year for disaster response for Puerto Rico and other areas that could be diverted to a border wall as part of the emergency declaration. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.
Wittman wants to avoid “showdown politics” altogether.
“And we find ourselves here repeatedly, and all of this is avoidable if members of Congress suffer the consequences for not getting the job done,” he said. “I think that’s the way to totally avoid this.”
Wittman also said he stands with the 800,000 federal workers who won’t be getting paid Friday.
“I have asked from day one for my paycheck to be withheld, so I’m standing in solidarity with our federal workers,” he told WTOP. “I also have a bill in that says federal workers need to receive their back pay” when the shutdown ends.
Wittman believes in going a step further when it comes to withholding Congress’ pay as well — that the pay should be automatically stopped in a shutdown situation and should not be up to individual members to volunteer.
WTOP’s Mitchell Miller and The Associated Press contributed to this report.