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By Dartunorro Clark and Tammy Leitner
Federal workers woke up to a harsh reality on Friday when they did not receive their expected paychecks for the first time as the partial government shutdown entered its 21st day.
An estimated 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed or are working without pay, throwing everything from airport security to environmental protection to federal resources for low-income housing into jeopardy.
The last government shutdown to have lasted this long was the impasse that stretched from December 1995 to January 1996, when President Bill Clinton and the GOP-controlled Congress were at loggerheads. As of Friday afternoon, with the shutdown poised to become the longest in U.S. history, President Donald Trump and Congress appeared no closer to a deal to reopen the government.
Trump on Friday continued to lambaste Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, for standing firm in their refusal to fund a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Humanitarian Crisis at our Southern Border,” the president said on Twitter a day after traveling to Texas to bolster his argument for the wall. “I just got back and it is a far worse situation than almost anyone would understand, an invasion!”
“The Steel Barrier, or Wall, should have been built by previous administrations long ago. They never got it done – I will. Without it, our Country cannot be safe. Criminals, Gangs, Human Traffickers, Drugs & so much other big trouble can easily pour in. It can be stopped cold!”
With negotiations at a standstill, Trump has threatened to keep key agencies shuttered for months or even a year if Democrats don’t agree to allocate billions for his border wall. The president has even signaled that he would declare a national emergency to bypass Congress and siphon billions from the federal government to build the wall.
On Friday, the Democrat-controlled House passed two bills to provide relief to workers and reopen some essential federal agencies. One bill to reopen the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and other related agencies passed 240 to 179, with 10 Republicans voting with Democrats. The other bill, which guarantees back pay to federal workers, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, 411 to 7. Seven Republicans voted against that measure.
Currently, some government agencies are relying on temporary funds to keep some operations going, but experts have warned that the situation could get grimmer if it drags on.
For many workers going without pay, it’s already dire.
William Villegas and Michelle Seeley, a couple that works as contract employees for the Kennedy Space Center and members of the Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, told NBC News on Friday that the uncertainty has caused considerable worry in their household, especially since they have two children.
“I’m severely disappointed in the government, all of them, and I vote in every election,” Seeley said. “And as a member of the union, I’ve taken part in rallying other people to vote because I think it’s an important part of the democratic process, so the whole thing is disappointing to me because I feel like nothing is working the way it’s supposed to work in the government.”
Since both are contract employees, they are not guaranteed back pay if the government reopens. The couple said they have savings that they haven’t dipped into yet, but health care expenses are a concern.
“Well, we have two small children, so the medical issue is constant,” Seeley said. “You never know when they’re gonna get sick, or need something.”
Villegas said the shutdown “didn’t have to happen” and pinned some of the blame on Trump, alluding to separate instances in which either the House or the Senate passed bills that would have created a path to ending the stalemate.
LeRoy and Judy Smith also had harsh words for Washington. LeRoy, also a member of the the Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, is an electrician at the space center. The couple said they live paycheck to paycheck, and that Judy has a condition that causes seizures, requiring her to rely on expensive prescription medication.
“He doesn’t like having to say that he can’t do a thing, especially when it’s for me,” Judy said. “He doesn’t like to say he can’t get my medicine for me.”
Since the shutdown, LeRoy said he has been considering temporary work to keep “his head above water.”
“It’s childish to shut down the government just because you can’t come to an agreement,” LeRoy said.
“It’s like we’re being held hostage,” Judy added.
The Associated Press reported on Friday that the government shutdown has suspended federal cleanups at Superfund sites around the nation and forced the cancellation of public hearings. As a result, a mostly African-American community in Alabama, for instance, has been forced to cope with high levels of arsenic, lead and other contaminants in the soil around homes.
Low-income senior citizens in Jacksonville, Florida, have also been left to fend for themselves because the shutdown froze funds the Department of Housing and Urban Development used for low-income housing.
And more grim scenarios could happen if the shutdown continues to drag on, including 38 million low-income Americans losing access to food stamps, 2 million losing access to rental assistance and facing possible eviction and the federal court system almost screeching to a halt.
Supreme Court blocks suit over racially gerrymandered districts in Virginia
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday tossed out a lawsuit in Virginia over political boundaries for its state Legislature.
By a 5-4 vote — but not strictly along the usual conservative/liberal divide — the court said Virginia’s House of Delegates did not have the legal right to carry on a fight over the map once state officials bowed out.
The dispute arose after the last census when the Republican-controlled Legislature redrew the district lines for the Virginia Senate and the House of Delegates. In response to a lawsuit, a federal court declared the map invalid, concluding that it unconstitutionally sorted voters based on race. A redrawn map was seen as more favorable to Democrats.
Virginia’s attorney general declined to appeal, and the House of Delegates picked up the fight. But the Supreme Court said a single house of the Legislature had no authority to do so.
“The House observes that Virginia gives redistricting authority to the ‘General Assembly.’ True enough,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote. But, she said, “One house of its bicameral legislature cannot alone continue the litigation against the will of its partners in the legislative process.”
She was joined by two of the court’s other liberals, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, but also by two of the court’s most conservative members, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring called the ruling a big win for democracy.
“It’s unfortunate that House Republicans wasted millions of taxpayer dollars and months of litigation in a futile effort to protect racially gerrymandered districts, but the good news is that this fall’s elections will take place in constitutionally drawn districts,” Herring said.
Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general during the Obama administration, called the decision “an important victory for African Americans in Virginia who have been forced since 2011 to vote in racially gerrymandered districts that unfairly diluted their voting power.”
“With a new, fair map in place, all Virginians will now — finally — have the opportunity this fall to elect a House of Delegates that actually represents the will of the people,” Holder said.
Monday’s decision will have no practical effect, because the Supreme Court had earlier allowed elections to proceed using the redrawn map that the House of Delegates opposed.
Biden diagnosed the problem, but I’ve got the solution
When Joe Biden jumped into the presidential race in April, one of his competitors, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, said the former vice president gets the economic problems facing Americans in the middle of the country.
Ryan told MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle the former vice president understands how blue collar workers are struggling, a problem Ryan said he gets as well. But, the congressman said he thinks he’s the one with answers for those problems, not Biden.
Referring to a clip of Biden speaking about the problems facing Rust Belt workers, Ryan said he’d be “talking about the issues that are important and talking about the anxiety the vice president just mentioned,” but would be the one who will have “innovative solutions,” including creating “an industrial policy in the United States.”
Mitch McConnell isn’t sure why Jon Stewart is ‘all bent out of shape’ over 9/11 funds
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday that he doesn’t know why comedian Jon Stewart got “all bent out of shape” over funding for 9/11 first responders, and insisted “we will take care of” them.
The Kentucky Republican, who’s been accused over the years of slow-walking related legislation to help the emergency personnel who responded to the 2001 terrorist attacks, told “Fox & Friends” there’s “no way we won’t address this problem appropriately.”
Stewart had called out McConnell on “Fox News Sunday,” noting that the GOP leader had claimed earlier in the week he had always dealt with the first responders in a “compassionate way, and I assume we will again.”
“I want to make it clear this has never been dealt with compassionately by Senator McConnell,” Stewart said in the interview. “He has always held out until the very last minute, and only then under intense lobbying and public shaming has he even deigned to move on it.”
McConnell dismissed Stewart’s concerns Monday morning.
“Many things in Congress happen at the last minute,” he said. “We’ve never failed to address this issue and we will address it again. I don’t know why he’s all bent out of shape, but we will take care of the 9/11 victims’ compensation fund.”
Stewart, the former host of “The Daily Show,” took aim at Congress during his appearance before a House subcommittee last week, where he lobbied for a bill that would ensure the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund would be funded for 70 years. Congress has paid for the fund, which will run out of money in 2020, with a series of short-term spending bills, forcing first responders who were sickened by working in the toxic rubble of the World Trade Center to repeatedly travel to Washington to plead for help.
Testifying with Stewart last Tuesday was former NYPD detective Luis Alvarez, who was headed for a 69th round of chemotherapy the next day.
Stewart noted that there were several empty seats at the hearing.
“I can’t help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process getting health care and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to — behind me a filled room of 9/11 first responders and in front of me a nearly empty Congress,” he said. “Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak, to no one.”
“It’s shameful,” Stewart said.
McConnell shrugged off that complaint on “Fox & Friends” as well.
“That frequently happens because members have a lot of things going at the same time and it sounds to me like he was looking for some way to take offense,” he said.
In addition, the subcommittee hearing had been held in the full committee’s hearing room, increasing the number of empty chairs on the dais.
Asked if the legislation would be fully funded by the Senate after it is passed by the House, McConnell said, “Yeah.”
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