The Trump administration on Tuesday said it has called back tens of thousands of federal workers to fulfill key government tasks, including disbursing tax refunds, overseeing flight safety and inspecting the nation’s food and drug supply, as it seeks to blunt the impact of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
The nearly 50,000 furloughed federal employees are being brought back to work without pay — part of a group of about 800,000 federal workers who are not receiving paychecks during the shutdown, which is affecting dozens of federal agencies large and small. A federal judge on Tuesday rejected a bid by unions representing air traffic controllers and other federal workers to force the government to pay them if they are required to work.
The efforts by the Trump administration to keep the government operating during the partial shutdown came as the White House and Congress made no progress toward resolving their underlying dispute.
President Trump extended an unusual lunch invitation to a handful of rank-and-file House Democrats in an attempt to woo them and create a divide within the Democratic camp over the shutdown. But the lawmakers rebuffed the outreach as Democratic leaders voiced concerns the meeting would prove little more than a photo opportunity bolstering Trump.
With Democrats in the House pushing forward with bills to reopen the government, Trump seesawing from one strategy to another to win funding for his border wall and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) largely sitting out the battle, there appeared to be no path toward opening the government as the partial shutdown ground through its 25th day.
The differing developments left a discordant image of Washington. As political leaders were paralyzed over a way to end the impasse, the federal government itself was looking for ways to show flexibility in determining who can and cannot work.
The president struck a defiant tone in a call Tuesday afternoon with supporters, according to audio of the call obtained by The Washington Post, urging them to call Democrats and voice support for the border wall and pledging, “We’re going to win.”
“They’re not being paid right now because of the Democrats,” Trump said of the federal workforce.
“People are impressed with how well government is working with the circumstances we’re under,” the president added.
But lawmakers from both parties were getting increasingly anxious for the shutdown to be over, even as an endgame looked as remote as ever.
The contours of the standoff have not changed since the shutdown began Dec. 22, with Trump repeating his demands for $5.7 billion to build more than 200 new miles of walls along the U.S.-Mexico border and Democrats refusing to budge from offering $1.3 billion to extend existing funding levels for border barriers and fencing.
Democrats are calling on Trump to reopen the portions of the government that have nothing to do with the wall before they negotiate with him on that issue. Trump has refused, but increasing numbers of Republicans have been issuing calls for Trump to reopen the government, even if just on a short-term basis as negotiations continue.
On Tuesday afternoon, members of a bipartisan Senate group that had met Monday evening gathered on the Senate floor and decided their best step forward was to release a letter to Trump and leadership detailing, in broad strokes, support for reopening the government and providing a boost in funding for border security while negotiations continue, according to a person familiar with the deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said, “I’m confident we’re never going to get a deal with the government shut down, but if we had an opportunity to negotiate without the government shut down I think it’d fall pretty quickly in place.”
Trump on Monday rebuffed that proposal from Graham, but the senator indicated Tuesday he was not prepared to abandon the idea yet. “Stay tuned,” Graham said.
Others were less sanguine.
“I’m an optimistic person, I’m not seeing the blue sky here as yet,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “There’s obviously going to be a pressure point at which it’s no longer sustainable, but at this point it doesn’t look like anybody’s blinking.”
The depth of the impasse was underscored Tuesday when a small group of rank-and-file House Democrats, including centrist-leaning freshmen and sophomores, turned down an offer to join Trump and House Republicans at a White House lunch to discuss the issue.
Invited lawmakers included Reps. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), J. Luis Correa (D-Calif.), both leaders of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition; Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), a freshman lawmaker who is also a Blue Dog member; and another group member, Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.).
Crist and Murphy both cited previous obligations as their reasons for snubbing the president’s invite. But all the lawmakers had faced widespread opposition from fellow Democrats, including party leaders, toward attending an event where some feared they could turn into props for Trump.
“The question that I think everyone can reasonably ask is, is he inviting people to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to really try to resolve this problem or to create a photo op so he can project a false sense of bipartisanship?” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. “That is a question that I think every individual member will have to entertain for themselves.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders called the Democrats’ decision unfortunate and said, “It’s time for the Democrats to come to the table and make a deal.”
Trump’s GOP allies in Congress criticized Democrats for the Tuesday snub.
“In case you needed MORE proof that Democrats are more interested in stopping the President than helping the country,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) wrote on Twitter. “They rejected President Trump’s invitation to meet at the White House. They refuse to come to a compromise to secure the border and end the shutdown.”
The White House’s strategy for weeks has been to splinter the Democrats, but that has failed repeatedly as Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has aligned himself closely with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The newest iteration of this approach for the White House has been to try to pry loose rank-and-file members from Schumer and Pelosi’s side, but that appeared to not succeed as of Tuesday.
It was a test for both Democratic leaders and also freshman Democrats, many of whom had sent mixed signals about abiding leadership during their campaigns.
As Tuesday’s meeting collapsed, the White House sought to organize a meeting with a different group of House Democrats for Wednesday, sending out an invitation to bipartisan members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, according to two Democrats familiar with the invitation. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential communications.
At least one invited lawmaker, Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), quickly rejected the invitation for Wednesday, leaving it uncertain whether that meeting would take place, either.
“I’m not interested in a photo op while Americans are hurting from the longest shutdown in our nation’s history,” Peters said in a statement.
The House, newly under Democratic control, has passed spending bills to reopen portions of the government unrelated to the border wall, and this week the House is taking up short-term spending bills to reopen the government into various points in February.
But Trump has refused to support the House Democrats’ legislation, and McConnell has said repeatedly that he will not put any legislation on the Senate floor without Trump’s support.
Asked whether the Senate might potentially try to override a Trump veto to end the shutdown, McConnell on Tuesday replied “Of course not,” saying that he and other Republicans supported the policy goals the president was seeking to achieve.
Freshman House Democrats sought to increase pressure on McConnell with a staged visit to his office in the Capitol to try to meet with him. They were turned away by staffers who told them McConnell was busy on the Senate floor but said they left a note asking him to get in touch for a meeting at another time.
“We’re here to remind Mitch McConnell that he works for the people, not for this administration, and he needs to make sure to free the American people from the current hostage that they’re being held by this administration,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).
Earlier, Pelosi began a closed-door meeting of the House Democratic Caucus by reading results of the latest Quinnipiac University poll, showing voters blame Trump more than Democrats for the shutdown, according to an aide in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private gathering.
The aide said Pelosi went on to tell her caucus: “We want to talk about our values in terms of immigration and how that’s always been bipartisan, including George Herbert Walker Bush, Ronald Reagan and the rest. Not to go into that, but to just say that I understand you all want to know what’s the next step, but just the message of ‘Open up government so we can have this discussion’ is a very important message.”
The House and Senate canceled recesses that had been scheduled for next week, with leaders saying they would stay in town to work through the shutdown.
The shutdown has begun seriously complicating the government’s ability to perform duties millions of Americans depend on, leading to decisions by the administration aimed at lessening such impacts.
The Internal Revenue Service plans to end furloughs for more than half of its workforce to prepare for tax-filing season, union officials said, meaning as many as 46,000 IRS employees could be forced to go to work with no pay while the shutdown continues. Up to 2,200 aviation safety inspectors with the Federal Aviation Administration are expected to be recalled by the end of the week, and 500 Food and Drug Administration workers have been recalled to work and will be unpaid until the shutdown ends, among others.
That has led to lawsuits from federal workers’ unions arguing that unpaid work violates labor laws and the Constitution.
But a federal judge in Washington on Tuesday refused to force the government to pay federal employees who have been working without compensation during the partial government shutdown.
U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon said it would be “profoundly irresponsible” for him to issue an order that would result in thousands of federal employees staying home from work and not doing their jobs.
“At best it would create chaos and confusion,” Leon said. “At worst it could be catastrophic. . . . I’m not going to put people’s lives at risk.”
Molly A. Elkin, an attorney representing the air traffic controllers union, had implored the judge to tell the government and the president to “get their hands out of the pockets of the air traffic controllers.”
“We need you, judge, to give this workforce hope that at least one branch of the American government has their back,” Elkin said. Workers showed up to the hearing wearing red pins demanding “Back Pay Now” and blue stickers with the message “RESPECT.” They were asked to remove those accessories before entering the courtroom.
Other shutdown impacts still threatened. White House officials warned earlier this month that the nation’s food stamp program was at risk of running out of funding in March if the shutdown is not resolved.
And White House officials were continuing to be caught unprepared for major problems with how the shutdown is unfolding. For example, the initial notification they gave 800,000 federal employees that they would not be paid was set to expire Monday, and all of those employees must be notified again.
But agency officials do not know how to notify all the employees, some of whom are working in outposts around the globe. They cannot email these workers — the employees are not allowed to check their work email during a shutdown. The White House Office of Management and Budget held a conference call with a number of agencies Tuesday to discuss how to proceed but could not come up with a solution. One idea was to send a certified letter to all 800,000 employees, but because of the shutdown, the agencies lack the money to pay for the postage.
The departments and agencies affected by the shutdown make up about a quarter of the parts of the federal government that are funded by Congress.
The Pentagon is mostly unaffected, since a spending bill for the military was passed by Congress and signed by Trump in 2018. Congress and the president also passed legislation to fund the Labor Department, the Department of Health and Human Services and others before Trump’s demands for wall money ground negotiations on other spending bills to a halt.
Programs such as Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid also are unaffected, because their budgets proceed automatically, without the need for annual congressional appropriations. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation also is unaffected; it is paid for by a permanent, dedicated funding stream.
Jeff Stein, Josh Dawsey, Robert Costa, Paul Kane, Mike DeBonis, Damian Paletta and Jenna Portnoy contributed to this report.