WASHINGTON – Minnesota’s members of Congress say they want the full federal government to reopen as soon as possible. But so far, all are sticking with their parties in the fight that’s led to the nearly three-week shutdown.
For Democrats, that means repeated votes for bills to reopen federal agencies that President Donald Trump says he won’t sign without money to build a wall along the Mexico border.
For Republicans, it means votes against those measures, even though they would put hundreds of thousands of federal employees back to work, including many in Minnesota.
“Colleagues, we can do this,” Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat, said in a floor speech Thursday after reading letters from federal employees in Minnesota working without pay. “I don’t sit in this chamber and think about whether my vote is what the president wants me to do. My vote is about what Minnesotans want me to do.”
But Rep. Tom Emmer, a Republican and a member of his party’s House leadership, pinned blame for the shutdown on Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Speaker Pelosi is the only one that’s not willing to negotiate. … She has said no, no and no, no matter what the president tries to do,” he said, adding that he, too, feels for those working without pay: “These are people’s lives, and they do some of the most important jobs in the country, making sure we’re safe and secure.”
On Friday, an estimated 800,000 federal employees will miss their first paycheck, including airport security workers, air traffic controllers and border security guards. On Saturday, the shutdown will enter its third week, matching the length of the longest federal shutdown in U.S. history.
In Minneapolis and other cities, federal employees held protests over Friday’s lunch hour, sponsored by several national labor groups.
In Minneapolis, about two dozen protesters gathered along busy Hiawatha Avenue, near the Department of Veterans Affairs office and hospital complex. They chanted and waved signs reading “End the Shutdown,” “Do What’s Right” and “Let Me Do My Job.”
“Trump needs to end this shutdown and realize this affects people’s livelihoods,” said Dusten Retcher, who processes benefit claims at the VA. “I understand what it is to serve this country,” added Retcher, an Air Force veteran, “and I am happy to continue to serve the government.”
About 5,500 federal employees in the state work for affected agencies, with combined wages and salaries that exceed $200 million a month. Farmers who hold or are seeking federal loans are affected, as are those wishing to apply for federal payouts meant to offset consequences of Trump’s tariff battle with China. If the shutdown extends much longer, federal housing and food assistance could also be affected.
“It’s time to stop playing politics with people’s lives in this country,” said Rep. Angie Craig, a newly elected Democrat. Craig said she’s spoken with several air traffic controllers who work at a regional center in Farmington who are working without pay. One is the father of a baby just born 10 weeks early. Another is a cancer survivor with hefty medical bills.
Craig and Minnesota’s other House Democrats — Collin Peterson, Betty McCollum, Ilhan Omar and Dean Phillips — have been voting this week in favor of the series of bills that would reopen shuttered agencies. Minnesota’s three House Republicans — Emmer, Jim Hagedorn and Pete Stauber — have voted against them.
“I feel like border security has been a problem for 30 years. Finally we have a president who’s willing to do something about it, so I think he needs support,” said Hagedorn, whose southern Minnesota district is home to Rochester’s Federal Medical Center, where a number of employees are working without pay.
Hagedorn, who once worked for the Treasury Department, said he worked without pay during the 1995-96 federal government shutdown, which lasted 21 days.
“Everybody knows that when it’s over, everybody gets paid up,” he said. “Everyone from the president on down said they’re going to be taken care of. Is it inconvenient? I understand that.”
A few House Republicans from other states have crossed party lines to vote with Democrats on some of the individual funding bills. While Minnesota’s Republicans have stayed on the same page so far, Hagedorn and Emmer took different tacks to the question of whether Trump should declare a national emergency to unilaterally secure funding for a border wall.
“If he says it’s an emergency and he wants to reprogram money from the Defense Department, I would support him on that,” Hagedorn said.
Emmer would be more reluctant to do so: “I hope it doesn’t come to that,” he said.
Phillips said the best solution would be for Trump and Republicans to join Democrats in reopening the government, after which all sides would embark on good-faith negotiations over a major new package of border security and immigration reform.
“We’re here to have those debates,” Phillips said. “I’m one who is trying to encourage our leadership not just to object to the wall, but to be proactive in proposing some solutions to both border security and the immigration system. The problem is, this is not a city that encourages trustful relationships.”
In the Senate, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to take up the House-passed spending bills, given Trump’s objections to them. The dispute has slowed action to a halt in that body, and Smith and Sen. Amy Klobuchar have joined fellow Senate Democrats to block otherwise routine bills like a Middle East policy bill that includes assistance to Israel.
Smith is also cosponsor of a measure to restore back pay to low-wage government contractors — custodial and maintenance workers, food service workers and security guards. Unlike employees on the federal payroll, these workers have historically not gotten lost pay after a shutdown.
Smith, Klobuchar, Craig, Phillips, Peterson, Hagedorn and Stauber have all said they intend to donate their congressional pay to charity or otherwise defer it for the balance of the shutdown.