- By Jessica Wehrman
- Jack Torry Washington Bureau
The federal government shut down Saturday for the first time since 2013 late Friday, with a handful of Republicans and the vast majority of Democrats in the Senate opposing efforts to keep the federal government running for another month.
By a vote of 50-48, Senate Republicans fell far short of the 60 votes needed to end floor debate and clear the way for a vote on a bill approved Thursday by the House which would keep the federal government open until the middle of February.
Hundreds of housands of federal workers faced the possibility of being furloughed during a shutdown.
While most of the functions of the federal government will still operate – the mail will be delivered, Social Security checks will still go out, the military will still function – workers deemed “non-essential” would be asked not to go to work, and would be paid only after the federal government resumed operations.
At issue was what would be the fourth temporary spending bill passed by Congress since the fiscal year began in October.
That bill would also extend the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP, for six years. Republicans included the measure as a sweetener aimed at attracting Democratic support.
At first, the plan seemed to work, with Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio indicating he’d likely support the bill. But Brown joined most Senate Democrats Friday in blocking a floor vote.
Brown was influenced in part by the announcement Friday that a handful of Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona did not plan to vote for the bill. They had been working toward a separate measure aimed at extending a program that allows people brought to the United States illegally as children to stay, and called for a short-term bill that would keep the government open through early next week, expressing confidence that they could come up with a long term plan during that time.
Brown jumped, saying he’d support the shorter-term plan.
“We are very close to a bipartisan agreement, and we owe it to the people we work for to keep working and get the job done,” said Brown.
But in agreeing to the shorter-term plan, he became the object of derision from Republicans who hope to unseat him later this year. They said by opting not to support the bill passed by the House, he was effectively voting against the six-year extension of CHIP.
Blaine Kelly of the Ohio Republican Party said Brown’s decision not to vote for the GOP plan “is a flip flop beyond belief, and puts the health insurance of nearly a quarter million Ohio children at risk.”
Jennifer Donohue, communications director for Brown, replied that CHIP would have passed “months ago” if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, “had listened to Senator Brown, but instead they’re holding the program hostage and using Ohio kids as political leverage.”
Last December, Brown voted against a temporary spending bill that kept the government open because it only extended CHIP money for three months instead of five years.
While Republicans blamed Senate Democrats for the shutdown, a Washington Post-ABC News Poll released Friday indicated most Americans blamed the party in power: 48 percent of those polled blamed Republicans while 28 percent blamed Democrats.
Ohio Democrats, meanwhile, pointed out that Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Wadsworth, who is challenging Brown for Senate, voted for the measure that led to the federal government shutdown in 2013.
“If the government shuts down tonight, the blame will lay at the feet of Republicans in control of Washington, like Rep. Jim Renacci, who irresponsibly govern by crisis and play political games,” said Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Jake Strassberger.
Renacci and Senate Republican candidate Mike Gibbons were quick to strike back. James Slepian, a Renacci aide said “after Sherrod Brown vowed to shut down the government, cut off funding to our troops and deny health insurance to 9 million low income children, Senator Brown and his lackeys at the Ohio Democratic Party are terrified by the hell he’ll pay with Ohio voters.”
Gibbons said that “Sherrod Brown and Chuck Schumer are playing politics with people's lives for partisan advantage.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, speaking on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” seemed puzzled that Democrats were holding up the bill in large part because of the immigration issue, saying “it’s an issue that hasn’t been resolved yet and it will take a little more time.” He backed moving the bill forward.
“This is not a good way to score political points,” Portman said.
Despite the shutdown, much of the government will remain effectively operational, albeit on a smaller scale, at least in the short term. The mail will still get delivered, the post offices will remain open, the Army, Navy and Air Force operate as usual but active duty members will not be paid until the shutdown ends, and Americans receive their Social Security checks. Medicare and Medicaid continue to function.
The state in 2016 had 77,400 federal employees, of which 5,250 were on active duty with the Air Force. Air Force civilian employment was 13,838, almost all at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton.
During past partial shutdowns, some civilian workers were furloughed, although they were paid when the government re-opened. In the 2013 shutdown, 50 workers at the Defense Supply Center in Whitehall were furloughed.
In part, Democrats have adopted a strategy aimed at their political base which is demanding action on the Dreamers and wants more confrontation with Trump. By doing so, they are emulating the Republican strategy of 2013 in which the GOP closed the government in a futile effort to convince President Barack Obama to scrap his 2010 health law known as Obamacare.
“Smart Republicans have learned how stupid it is politically to shut down the government,” said one longtime Republican lobbyist in Washington. “You don’t win when you shut down the government.”
The Republican said the Senate Democrat strategy was complicated when House Republicans overcame their vast differences and passed the temporary spending bill Thursday. Until then, Senate Democrats could justifiably argue that the GOP-controlled House could not keep the government open.
“It would have been one thing if the House failed,” the Republican said. “But once (House Speaker Paul) Ryan did the miraculous and passed a bill with votes from people who hate spending bills of any kind, it totally changed the dynamic.”