The ongoing government shutdown was protested by FAA employees at the Louisville airport on Tuesday. Many have just missed their first paychecks.
Alton Strupp, Louisville Courier Journal
Nancy Morrison isÂ dipping into her savings account to buy food and pay for basic householdÂ bills as negotiations to end the government shutdown remain at a standstill.
TheÂ communications, radar and automation technician at Louisville International Airport hasÂ workedÂ three weeks without a paycheck, along with roughly 800,000 other federal workers who arenâ€™t being paid.Â
Morrison, of Louisville, has tried repeatedly to contact a man who she believes could help re-open the government: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But theÂ U.S. Air Force veteran says it’sÂ nearly impossible to get through to anyone at his offices. She can’t leave a message with anyone in hisÂ Washington, D.C. office, and his local office rings until the lineÂ hangs up.
“For me personally, itâ€™s a joke that we canâ€™t get a hold of him because he is our senator, and heâ€™s holding the reins, too, of the Senate vote,” Morrison said.
Morrison is asking a question echoed by many political leaders in Washington, and experts around the county as the shutdown hits day 27: Where’s Mitch McConnell?
The question became a trending topic on Twitter thanks to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, who joined a handful of House Democrats scouringÂ the halls of Congress with news cameras askingÂ “Where’s Mitch?” She and aÂ group hand-delivered a letter to McConnell’sÂ office,Â demanding a vote to reopen the government.
“Heâ€™s not in the cloak room. Heâ€™s not in the Capitol. Heâ€™s not in the Russel building. Heâ€™s not on the floor of the Senate,”Â Ocasio-Cortez said on social media. “And 800,000 people still donâ€™t have their paychecks â€“ so #WheresMitch?”
McConnellÂ was praised by Republicans andÂ DemocratsÂ during President Barack Obamaâ€™s tenure for cutting deals to escape gridlock. But observers have noted the Kentucky Republican, who once relished that deal-maker role, is keeping his head downÂ during this partial â€“ yetÂ historically longÂ â€“Â shutdown.
Here’s how McConnellÂ explainedÂ it to the Courier Journal: In those previous impasses or shutdowns, there was a Democratic White House that took the lead. Obama needed GOP votes that, McConnell said, as minority leader, he was able to deliver as a key negotiator.Â
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McConnell:Â Democrats should deliver deal
The nearly monthlong shutdownÂ was triggered by Trumpâ€™s demand for $5.7 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats preferÂ toÂ invest more heavily in ports of entry. The Democratic-led House of Representatives passed a spending bill Jan. 3 that includes $8Â million to hire 328 new Customs officers and $225 million to purchase equipment used to screen trucks and vehicles for contraband.Â
The way McConnell sees it, under President Donald Trump,Â Democrats Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, and Chuck Schumer, his Senate counterpart, should be the ones delivering a deal.
“As long as Democrats refuse to come to the table for serious, good-faith negotiations with the White House, they will prolong this partial government shutdown,” McConnell told the Courier Journal on Wednesday. “Speaker Pelosi continues to prioritize her opposition to President Trump over the security of our nationâ€™’s borders and the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who are missing paychecks.”
Neither Pelosi nor Schumerâ€™s office responded to a request for comment.
Ben Self, chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, said no one accepts McConnellâ€™s explanation about his absence from the shutdown talks, however.
â€œI think itâ€™s obvious that Sen. McConnell is afraid of the president at this point,â€ he said.
The question is whether McConnell is taking a reasonable backseat to the president, or if it’sÂ hisÂ latest effort to avoidÂ friction with theÂ confrontational commander-in-chief, who remains popular in Kentucky.
Managing mulitple political priorities
Democrats want McConnell to let the Senate vote on their compromise proposal, which funds eight of the nine shuttered departments while temporarily funding Homeland security to continue the border security debate.
But he has rejected that offer becauseÂ Trump doesn’t support it.Â
“If Trump is not willing to sign off on a budget, then itâ€™s not clear anything McConnell could work out would do much good,â€ said Stephen Voss, a University of Kentucky political science professor. â€œIt would only be creating conflict within the Republican Party for nothing. â€¦ McConnell canâ€™t look as though he is betraying Trumpâ€™s bargaining position.”
Democrats say that is just the latest example of McConnell overlooking Trumpâ€™s worst tendencies in exchange for fillingÂ judicialÂ vacancies with conservatives. The McConnell legacy hinges upon a rightward shift in the courts, which he has made clear is more paramount to him than any other policy achievement.
“It’s the only thing we do where there are lifetime appointments,” McConnell told the Courier Journal in October. “I love the tax bill andÂ I like what we did on deregulation, but just as soon as the political winds shift you can bet we’ll be back at the tax code depending on who is up and who is down at any given moment.”
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House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, who is Kentuckyâ€™s lone Democrat in Washington, praised McConnell after the mid-term elections for brokering previous deals to avoid a shutdown. He now believes his fellow Kentuckian is shifting that responsibility to other leaders at the expense of federal workers.
â€œSen. McConnell is clearly concerned about his re-election, and the re-elections of other Republican senators on the ballot in 2020,â€ Yarmuth said.
McConnell was able to deliver a unanimous short-term spending bill to Trumpâ€™s desk without the roughly $5.3 billion for the border wall just before Christmas.
Under that proposal, the government would have been kept open until February. But the president changed his mind abruptly because of pressure from conservative activists and prominent media figures to deliver on his campaign promise.
Yarmuth said McConnell doesnâ€™t want to take another risk given how unpredictable the president is known to be.
â€œWe now have a president who has proven himself incapable of keeping his word,â€ he said. â€œSen. McConnell is forced to decide between either looking foolish when the president once again publicly undermines him, or weak when he steps back from the important conversations that are happening. In this instance, Sen. McConnell has chosen the latter.â€
Sen. John Cornyn, of Texas, acknowledges the GOP leader is spinning multiple plates amid the shutdown.
â€œThe leader understands that everybody has different political needs and demands in their states,â€ Cornyn told the Washington Examiner. â€œBut I think (McConnell) believes that itâ€™s important that we not split our conference by forcing a vote on something that the president will veto.â€
‘No compassion … from Trump or McConnell’
In recent weeks, McConnell has echoed Trumpâ€™s warnings about the need for stronger border security, using his Senate floor speeches in the past week to take partisan punches at Democrats for being unwilling to negotiate.
â€œThe men and women on the ground have been unambiguous about the crises theyâ€™re facing,â€ McConnell saidÂ Wednesday. â€œThe entry of criminal aliens and gang members into our country. The drugs that go on to infect communities. The ongoing humanitarian crises that are fueled by our governmentâ€™s mixed signals and our inability to enforce our own laws.â€
McConnell sympathized with federal workers, saying how they will have to stretch every dollar untilÂ â€œDemocrats lose interest in dead-end political games.â€
Polling conducted this month shows Americans see this impasse as one between Trump and the Democrats, with little mud getting on Republicans like McConnell.
Fifty-four percentÂ said Trump is most responsible for the shutdown versus 31 percent who blame congressional Democrats. The poll, conducted by the PBS NewsHour and Marist,Â found just 5 percent fault the GOP on Capitol Hill.
Morrison, the FAA worker, doesnâ€™t care about the political math or maneuvering. She has little faith in thisÂ shutdown ending soon and she’s already thinking about what sacrifices sheÂ and her co-workers will have to make next in the coming weeks.
McConnell needs to either convince Trump to sign the compromiseÂ legislation or allow a vote to force the presidentâ€™s hand on what to do next, Morrison said. If Trump vetoes that bill then Congress should try to override that decision.
“Weâ€™re the ones working without pay and who have mortgages to pay. Itâ€™s just not right, and thereâ€™s no compassion coming from Trump or McConnell,” Morrison said. “I will keep callingÂ McConnell,Â because more and more of his senators are going to be hearing from us.”
Reporter BillyÂ Kobin contributed to this story. Reporter Phillip M. Bailey can be reached atÂ 502-582-4475 or email@example.com.Â