There Are Some Things You Can’t Shut Down

WASHINGTON—One of the most remarkable—and, certainly one of the most benign—phenomena of this doomstruck political weekend here is the fact that, while the united states of stasis existed within the Capitol, there was a lot of activity out around the building and all the way down the National Mall, and it was bipartisan, and it was multi-ideological. There was an ad hoc rally on the Capitol lawn to support the DREAMers that drew a fairly impressive cast of political characters. There was the annual massive March For Life that clogged the wide boulevards with fresh-faced high-school kids in letter jackets, and an appearance via video from the president* of the United States. (How many of the assembled knew who Stormy Daniels was is best left to unfounded speculation.) And, on Saturday, in the eleventh hour of the government shutdown, the women’s march took over on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, while various senators scurried around pretending that any solution is likely before next week.

(One of more underrated elements of why things aren’t getting done is the fact that it’s a weekend. Nothing will really begin to bite until Monday or Tuesday, when the furloughs of government workers really begin, and when the polling on the shutdown starts to spread the miseries generally.) 

“One of the worst things,” Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi told the crowd on Saturday, “is that they’re hiding behind children.” She was referring to the CHIP program, which was thrown into the House continuing resolution pretty much as a talking point against the possibility of the Democrats in the Senate doing what they did, which was to kill the CR by defeating a cloture motion on Friday night. Lost in all the parliamentary sturm und drang was how completely shabby that CR really is. For example, it funds the CHIP program, but it doesn’t extend the federal benefits to community health centers, which means the poor kids will have insurance and no place to use it. (This, by the way, is probably why Jon Tester of Montana didn’t join people like Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp in breaking party ranks. Those centers are vital to health-care in rural areas.)

The CR’s other flaws were ably addressed by Robert Casey, Jr. of Pennsylvania, on the floor of the Senate, when he pointed out that there are a large number of issues pending before the Senate that would not be solved even if the CR passed. For example, there is the Butch Lewis Act, which has nothing at all to do with boxing but, rather, is a bill to protect private pensions from being looted by corporate sharpers. These include pensions earned over a lifetime of back-breaking work by…wait for it…coal miners.

“I heard from the Majority Leader that somehow these kinds of issues that are part of the larger debate are not urgent,” Casey told the Senate. “He said the only urgent matter is the government-funding bill. I would agree that is urgent but I would also agree that if you are a retired coal miner or the family of a retired coal miner or a retired truck driver or if you are owed a pension of any kind for all the work you did in your life, your situation is urgent. It is not something we can put off and say, ‘Well, why don’t you wait for another six months? Wait for a couple more CR’s and we will get to you later. The pension issue is as urgent as any other.”

Going into the chamber on Saturday, Casey got off a Parthian shot at the president* who has been so absent throughout these proceedings. “He should get to work and take care of his coal miners,” Casey said. “I’m going in there to take care of mine.”

This basic gulf between the parties also accounts for why the Democrats have been so insistent on including a fix to the DACA problem despite the fact that it’s fairly easy for the Republicans to sell that issue shallowly as irrelevant to the funding of the government. First of all, they don’t trust this president* on immigration issues at all. Nor have they any good reason to do so. And they therefore look askance at any appeal to get to the DACA issue later. They see a very real possibility that, even if the White House doesn’t renege altogether, the issue will get tangled up in a fight over the debt ceiling or god alone knows what else.

That’s not even to mention that an estimated 122 DACA beneficiaries per week are losing their protected status right now. If you’re one of those people, and you see the shadows that once enshrouded your entire life beginning to gather around it again, this is as urgent an issue as any other. It’s a harder sell, but the people most directly involved in it are more than willing to try, and they’ve been haunting congressional offices for months to do so.

“Undocumented youth have said, ‘Enough, we will not be put in the shadows, we will share our stories, we will come together, and we will win,'” said Garisa Martinez, a carpenter’s daughter from Dallas who was brought here by her parents when she was an infant. She baby-sat to raise $100 for her application fee to college. “We don’t do that by ourselves. We’re going to need buddies and people who have our backs.”

“They’ve gone so long without a secure foundation of where they belong,” said Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon. “That stress is enormous. They’ve been growing up in our grade schools and our high schools, and contributing to our communities. For years, they’ve been coming to my town halls. They’ve been working to get this resolved for so long. It’s time to do it and the only way to do it is to attach it to a bill that gets to the Oval Office. And the Department of Homeland Security has said they need a lot of time to set up rules and so forth, so if you want this resolved in March, you have to get it lined up now.”

All day Saturday, they speechified in the Capitol, and they filtered through the hallways, talking about optimism they didn’t share and deals on issues that the president* doesn’t understand any better than he understands salads. Outside, and all over the country, people marched. That was the state of play with the government closed…perhaps for repairs, perhaps not.