DENVER – Colorado’s congressional Democrats said at a Monday morning news conference at Denver International Airport that President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were holding government workers “hostage” while the president throws “temper tantrums” over a border wall that has ever-shifting funding sources and while the longest-ever government shutdown continues.
The partial shutdown, which has affected around 800,000 federal employees across the country and around 15,000 in Colorado, the lawmakers said, entered its 24th day on Monday. On Saturday, it became the longest shutdown in the nation’s history, and Congress was not in session over the weekend.
Colorado’s congressional Democrats – Sen. Michael Bennet and Reps. Diana DeGette, Joe Neguse, Jason Crow and Ed Perlmutter – held the news conference alongside an air traffic employee union representative, an Environmental Protection Agency scientist and other federal workers with TSA security lines as a backdrop.
Government workers say financial stress is real
“I think everybody knows that work stress is not fun, and then having to worry about the health and wellness of your family also is not a stress you’d like to have,” said Josh Waggener, the state and regional representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers union, which sued the Trump administration over the shutdown last week as air traffic controllers worked without pay and received either zero or little money in their checks last Friday.
“To add financial stress on top of that, where we have people who are having to take out loans to pay their bills and still not knowing when they’re going to be able to pay those loans back either, that’s just something that is one of the little things that is a byproduct of this shutdown that I think people need to be aware of,” Waggener added.
Waggener said some union members had asked if they would legally be allowed to take on a second job, which he said might be necessary for some families but wasn’t something the union was necessarily encouraging.
“They can do that, but it’s not something we want them to do because we want them to be prepared to come to work and perform their air-traffic-controller job No. 1,” he said.
Environmental Protection Agency scientist Sherrie Kinard said she had begun thinking about stopping working for the federal government, saying it was “starting to become an unreliable employer.”
“One of the reasons why I joined the government was for that stability, for the benefits,” Kinard said. “I have two special-needs kids that I have to support and get therapies and medications for. I can’t be out of work without a paycheck.”
“These people standing behind us are solid employees. They have the safety of the citizens paramount. That’s why they’re working without a paycheck,” DeGette said as she referenced the TSA security area behind them. “But this can’t go on for their families or for the overall safety of the system much longer.”
Democrats say Trump, McConnell are responsible
Last week, the four House members present at Monday’s press conference issued a joint statement calling for an end to what they said was a “senseless” shutdown. They and Bennet elaborated on Monday after a weekend of inaction and more pressure from Trump on Democrats to give in to his requests for $5.7 billion in border wall money.
“This is a self-inflicted wound by the president of the United States and it should end,” Bennet said. Neguse called the situation a “travesty” and DeGette asked if this was the America that President Trump thinks he should be presiding over.
Crow asked about the thousands of veterans who have continued their service by working in the federal government but who were working without pay, saying they were being “held hostage’ and being used as “a bargaining tool” by the president and McConnell, R-Ky.
“The president obviously has thrown several temper tantrums now about border security, and we’re all about border security – we’ll sit down and work it out with him,” Perlmutter said. “But it’s got to be his way or the highway – at the expense of federal employees. They shouldn’t be the pawns of his political game, and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The Democrats placed the blame for the shutdown squarely on Trump and McConnell’s shoulders, though the president and some Republicans – especially in the Senate – have continued to blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., for not caving to their demands despite the Senate unanimously passing a continuing resolution that would have kept the government open in December.
The House, which was still in Republican control at the time, however refused to hold a vote on that measure and instead passed one with the border wall money that the Senate never took up.
Since then, President Trump has dug in his heels on keeping the government closed until he can get his pet wall project started – even considering declaring a national emergency to take money from disaster funds in order to fund part of a wall that he has consistently told his supporters Mexico would pay for.
And McConnell has vowed to block any measures passed by the newly Democratic-led House that do not contain the wall funding – something he held true to last week after the House passed several measures to reopen several agencies currently shut down. Most Democrats and some Republicans have called for him to bring the measures to the floor in order to vote and to test Trump’s veto pen.
“This is something that Congress could save today,” Bennet said Monday. “Mitch McConnell should put a bill on the floor that the Senate has voted for unanimously and reopen the government. And if the president vetoes it, the House of Representatives would override tomorrow, and the Senate would override it the day after that.”
Several of the lawmakers mentioned other bills that have passed in the past that could reopen the government, and they also noted that there were several past bills that contained the wall funding the president has called for that were rejected either by past Republican congressional leaders or by Trump himself.
Perlmutter pushed back against a question about why Democrats weren’t negotiating something in exchange for the wall funding in order to reopen the government.
“Our leadership has, as well as Republican leadership, and he’s walked out of the room,” Perlmutter said, referring to Trump abruptly leading a leadership meeting last week after comments about not supporting a wall from Pelosi. “So that’s not a very easy way to negotiate. This is the guy that wrote, or supposedly wrote, ‘The Art of the Deal’ and he isn’t sitting down to really negotiate.”
The Democrats said they wanted to reopen the government and would then be willing to negotiate a border security package – something party leadership has said since the shutdown began.
“There are a lot of ways to accomplish the border security – through drones, through barriers, through a whole variety of things,” Perlmutter said. “We want to see some really dramatic improvement to our immigration system. Generally there are a lot of ways to negotiate this, and I know as Democrats in the House, we’re prepared to do that. … [But] that’s the emergency now, is keeping the government open, and the president is refusing to negotiate.”
Bennet and 11 other Senate Democrats also sent a letter to Trump on Monday urging him to be aware of the impact of the shutdown on wildfire preparation.
“We write to urge you to cease the ongoing government shutdown and allow our nation’s forestry professionals and firefighters to continue forest restoration work and training certifications in advance of the coming fire season,” they wrote. “The failure to reopen the government puts peoples’ lives at risk by undermining their ability to respond to wildfires and will only serve to delay critical forest restoration and safety projects.”
Tipton, Gardner have differing opinions on shutdown, how to end it
But some Republicans are still putting the onus on Democrats. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., called the Democrats’ display “political posturing” in a statement and said that unless Pelosi is willing to pass a comprehensive border security measure that the government would stay shutdown.
“Speaker Pelosi needs to come to the table with a serious proposal that addresses border security and funds the government. It needs to be a proposal that stands a chance of clearing the House, Senate and President, otherwise it is nothing more than political posturing that will regrettably continue the partial government shutdown,” Tipton said. “Unfortunately so far, the Speaker refuses to even talk about border security, thus prolonging the preventable and unnecessary government shutdown.”
The offices of Reps. Ken Buck and Doug Lamborn – the state’s other two Republican U.S. House representatives – did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Bennet noted that the Gang of Eight immigration bill he helped draft and which passed the Senate in 2013 in bipartisan fashion but was never brought up in the Republican-led House had $46 billion worth of border security money and included 350 miles of border fencing that is similar to what the president is asking for now. He also noted that the bipartisan immigration measures that he and Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., worked on last year would have included some of the same funding but was shot down by Trump and McConnell over DACA protections. Both also jointly cosponsored the DREAM Act last year, which McConnell also objected to as a host of immigration measures failed.
“So the president invented an issue, and then he said the Mexicans would pay for the wall. He’s now demanding the American taxpayers pay for what is not a solution to this problem,” Bennet said. “If you were serious about it, what you would do is consult with the people who passed that bill in 2013 and see if you can get it through the Senate and through the House.”
Bennet said that he would “guarantee” that if McConnell brought similar measures to the floor that “both senators from Colorado would support it” and would override the president’s veto.
Gardner told Denver7 at the beginning of the month he didn’t think the government should be shut down while immigration reform and border security measures were worked out.
Responding to Bennet’s comments Monday, a spokesman for Gardner said that is still the case and said Gardner would support measures like the ones he and Bennet worked on in 2017 and 2018.
“Senator Gardner strongly supports efforts to take further action to increase funding for border security and begin to fix our broken immigration system, but doesn’t believe shutting down the government is the best course of action,” spokesman Jerrod Dobkin told Denver7.
“Instead, the Senator thinks we should fund border security, end the partial government shutdown, and then continue to fight to get even more border security funding in the long term,” Dobkin added. “Senator Gardner and Senator Bennet authored legislation to reform our broken immigration system and provide $25 billion for border security and Senator Gardner would be happy to see that legislation included in any deal to end the government shutdown.”
Trump not backing down Monday
But it is unclear which side might budge first. Democrats are newly-empowered after taking the House, and polls out over the weekend show a majority of Americans do not believe a wall is necessary but do believe that Trump and Republicans own the most responsibility over the shutdown.
Still, Trump told a farm convention in New Orleans Monday that he would “never, ever back down.” One of Trump’s main allies, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., on Monday encouraged the president to reopen the government for a few weeks to continue wall negotiations with Democrats and to declare a national emergency if a deal is not reached.
But Colorado’s Democrats seemed clear that they were far more concerned with getting the state’s federal workers back to work than they were about building a wall.
“Colorado – we are very lucky to have such a strong federal workforce. But right now, they’re getting hurt and we’ve got to do something about that,” Crow said.
“We should call it what it is. This president has effectively taken our government hostage because he won’t and can’t get his way,” said his fellow freshman, Neguse. “I would urge the Senate Republican majority leader, the Senate Republican caucus, and this president to come to their senses, reopen the government so we can get back to work for the American people.”