WASHINGTON – On the first day of the federal government shutdown, Republican leaders shucked their jackets, sat at a conference table and faced empty chairs – and cameras – to show that Democrats won’t negotiate.
With the shutdown in its fourth day, President Barack Obama, also sans jacket with his sleeves rolled up, strolled from the White House to a sub shop, where he praised its 10 percent discount for furloughed workers.
Political theater is at an all-time high as both parties seek to outdo each other with more elaborate and showy news events, even as there is little legislating or even backroom negotiating underway to end the stalemate.
The shutdown has emptied the usually bustling halls of the Capitol. Phones are going unanswered. The Capitol barber shop is closed, as are some eateries – even Taco Thursday was canceled. And worse still: Senators were forced to operate their own elevators.
But members of Congress are going about their business, perhaps with the awareness that, while they are deemed “essential” employees and not subject to furlough, much of the public thinks otherwise.
With the parties at a stalemate and much work at a halt, lawmakers have plenty of opportunities for theatrics. Republicans continue to publicly insist on changes to the Affordable Care Act as a condition for moving forward on a government funding plan, while Democrats hold firm to their view that the government should be reopened before they consider any reforms.
House Republicans emerged from a closed-door strategy session saying they were sticking with their strategy to move smaller spending bills that would resume some of the most visible and politically popular functions of government. “This isn’t some damn game,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Democrats have complained that the GOP’s piecemeal approach is itself a stunt. The tactic has put the tea-party-infused Republican majority in the odd position of arguing the virtues of government spending.
To promote one such bill, which would restore funding for the National Institutes of Health, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., was flanked by Republican lawmakers with medical backgrounds. They wore white lab coats, and one had a stethoscope dangling from his neck.
The Senate’s Democratic majority has dismissed repeated efforts to bring these House-passed bills to a vote, leaving senators plenty of time for a favorite activity: talking.
“No more gimmicks. No more games,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Budget Committee, said at a news conference, calling on House Republicans to allow a vote on a government spending bill without any amendments that would undermine the health care law.
One essential function members have performed is that of tour guide. With none of the building staff available to handle visitors, the public’s only ticket into the Capitol is as the guest of an elected official. Friday was a particularly busy day – at one point in the afternoon, no fewer than seven groups were walking through Statuary Hall and the rotunda, each led by an amateur guide.
“You get a chance to talk to them and see how much they appreciate this building, and this country,” said Rep. Steve King after he broke off from a joint tour with a fellow Iowa Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley.