The State Department ordered its employees to return to work next week, saying it has found money to cover a half-month in salary, as the Trump administration continued to grapple with a federal shutdown that shows no sign of ending.
The unexpected yet temporary move came on a day when the White House and congressional Democrats halted even the pretense of negotiations. The political acrimony between President Trump and Democratic leaders reached new levels, worrying members of both parties that the chance of a near-term resolution has moved far out of reach.
Trump on Thursday sent Pelosi a letter informing her he was canceling her imminent flight to visit U.S. troops in Afghanistan. This came one day after Pelosi suggested that Trump postpone his State of the Union address or present it in written form.
In his letter to Pelosi announcing her canceled trip, Trump wrote that “it would be better if you were in Washington negotiating with me and joining the Strong Border Security movement to end the Shutdown.”
Facing his own questions about plans to send a delegation of top officials to Davos, Switzerland, next week for the World Economic Forum, Trump late Thursday announced he would scrap the trip “[o]ut of consideration for the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay.” Trump himself dropped out of the conference earlier this month but had planned to send top officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The cancellations came as White House officials, federal employees, government agencies and thousands of businesses are struggling to adjust to a new dynamic: a politically paralyzed capital that lacks funding for some of its core operations. The flurry of polls that show Americans largely blame the White House for the shutdown has rattled Trump, people close to him said, leading him to closely monitor the fallout.
Senior White House officials receive frequent updates on how many Transportation Security Administration staffers are calling in sick to work, aware that major delays at airports could prompt a huge backlash.
To try to contain other fallout, thousands of federal workers are being rushed back to work, almost always without pay, to prevent the shutdown from having a cascading effect on the economy and the United States’ standing in the world.
But it’s unclear how long this piecemeal approach will work.
Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, questioned the legal justification the State Department was using to rapidly reinstate its workforce four weeks after the agency effectively ran out of money.
“As we await further clarity on this new funding scheme, I have serious questions about its impact on our embassy security, our efforts to combat terrorism and other vital programs,” he said.
The political standoff is leading to turmoil throughout the federal government, in thousands of households and in pockets of the economy, prompting frantic calls from families and business groups looking for short-term assistance.
The TSA acknowledged Thursday that the lengthy shutdown had affected its employees’ ability to come to work, with many calling in sick. Federal employees are generally barred from going on strike, even if they aren’t being paid, which has caused many to raid their retirement accounts, accept free food, or sell possessions online as they look for ways to pay bills.
“Many employees are reporting that they are not able to report to work due to financial limitations,” the TSA said.
And some agencies have had to deal with small-scale rebellions among the employees they are requiring to continue showing up for work. These employees have recently refused to put any work-related travel expenses on their personal credit cards, unsure when they will be repaid. Other agencies are ordering employees to return to work, without pay, to minimize the shutdown’s impact on a variety of industries, including agriculture, ranching, logging, banking and fishing.
The White House and federal agencies have received a blizzard of requests for help from lawmakers and industry groups, and Trump has remarked that he thinks his senior staff and Cabinet members are doing a good job blunting the impact.
“People are very impressed with how well government is working with the circumstances that we’re under,” he said to surrogates in a call Tuesday afternoon. “We’re working very hard to make sure that happens.”
Many federal employees were sent home without pay once the shutdown began, because Congress did not authorize the payment of their salaries. There are rules, however, that allow agencies to retain some staff, without pay, during a shutdown. Those workers are traditionally seen as ones essential to protecting public safety or government property, but the Trump administration also has activated workers it views to be essential to carrying out core agency operations. The White House Office of Management and Budget has some legal flexibility to determine who is essential and who must stay home, though some have argued that the agency is going too far.
“There is no credible justification” for some of these decisions, said Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and expert on government contracting. He said decisions to restart agency operations that had been closed to help farmers and energy-sector workers, for example, ran contrary to past government practice. “These are instances of the government working with some part of the private sector that is favored.”
White House officials, though, have argued that they are simply trying to minimize the impact of the shutdown on as many people as possible. They have reinstated Internal Revenue Service employees to help process millions of tax returns next month, and they have found a way to pay food-stamp benefits in the coming days as well.
“We are operating under duress in terms of trying to keep this government running,” a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the operations.
Trump has not gotten involved in the minutiae of agency decisions but has told Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, and others to do whatever they can to bring employees back to work so agency operations can continue, if legally possible.
Still, the moves by federal agencies have been uneven.
The Small Business Administration, a key liaison to thousands of U.S. companies, has stopped originating new loans, and many consumer protection entities have halted inspections.
And some agencies are resuming certain operations while keeping others closed.
At the Interior Department, bureaus have modified their contingency plans to sustain current and future mining, drilling and grazing operations on public land.
On Friday, the Bureau of Land Management changed its plan to allow for 19 percent of its 9,260-person workforce to continue on the job during the shutdown.
According to BLM officials, employees who are back on the job are working on activities including law enforcement, grazing activities and preparing for March lease sales that will take place in several Western states.
Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, for its part, has also brought back employees to avert any delays in its March auction for offshore oil and gas drilling.
Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, praised the decision.
“The offshore energy industry generates billions of dollars for the U.S. and state treasuries, provides thousands of well-paying jobs in the U.S. and bolsters our national energy security,” he said in a statement.
But some Democrats and environmental groups attacked the decision as political and dangerous.
On Wednesday, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) led a group of House Democrats in calling the assistance to the oil and gas industry “an outrageous step,” with a “farcical” justification in a letter to acting Interior secretary David Bernhardt.
“One of the most striking features” of the shutdown, the lawmakers wrote, “is the way the administration has bent over backwards to ensure that the pain of the shutdown falls only on ordinary Americans and the environment, and not on the oil and gas industry.”
On Wednesday, the Agriculture Department announced it would reopen Farm Service Agency offices in the coming days to help farmers process loans and prepare their tax returns. These offices had been closed since the shutdown began, but top agency officials were under pressure from farmers to reopen. Other parts of the agency remained shuttered, however.
In the past, agencies have had to deal with short-term shutdowns that lasted one week or two, but never anything of this magnitude. One reason they are looking to rework their contingency plans is that Trump has suggested this could continue for months or years.
Trump last month said he would not sign any bill funding government operations if it lacked $5.7 billion for the creation of walls and barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats have rejected this demand, calling it ineffective and immoral.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump promised Mexico would pay for the wall, but since his inauguration he has insisted the project be financed with U.S. taxpayer money. Because Democrats control the House, Trump can’t pass a spending bill without their support. Last week he suggested he could get around their opposition by declaring a national emergency, but he has backed away from that threat in recent days.
Lisa Rein, Juliet Eilperin, Carol Morello, Michael Laris and Jeff Stein contributed to this report.