Tlaib, freshmen Democrats lean on Senate to end government shutdown

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., left, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., second from right, and Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, right, laugh as they wait for other freshman Congressmen to deliver a letter calling to an end to the government shutdown to deliver to the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019.

Washington — U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib and more than a dozen other freshmen Democrats marched from the House of Representatives to the Senate on Wednesday to tell Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to end the partial government shutdown.

Trailed by staff and reporters, they walked together from the House cloak room, under the Capitol dome to McConnell's office, where aides told the group he was unavailable.

The Democrats left behind a letter they had signed, urging the Republican leader to take up bills passed by the House to reopen government departments. The shutdown is now in its fourth week.

After her colleagues left, Tlaib of Detroit said she remained in the office an extra minute or two, hoping McConnell might meet with a smaller group. 

"We want to urge the leadership of the Senate and empower him. That he can act without the president's approval," Tlaib said.

She accused President Donald Trump and Republican leaders of using federal workers and services as "pawns," insisting lawmakers can negotiate border security after the government is reopened.

"There's a huge fear (among constituents) that there's just no end to it. We did everything we can. We even passed a bill just to reopen it for two weeks, and the Senate won't move that either," Tlaib said. 

"The focus is to try to get the Senate to see the human toll it's taking on many of our folks back home." 

Trump has demanded $5.7 billion for his long-promised border wall or barrier. Democrats have balked while offering funding for fencing and other border security measures.

McConnell has said it's up to Democrats to end the shutdown, and that he won't bring up measures for a vote that Trump won't sign. 

"Cherry-picking continuing resolutions that fail to address the border security crisis are not going to receive the president's signature. The only way out of this impasse is a bipartisan agreement," McConnell said Wednesday on the Senate floor.

"Only an all-corners, bipartisan agreement will receive a vote here in the Senate."

With negotiations between the White House and Democratic leaders stalled, Trump met on Wednesday with members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, including Republican Rep. Fred Upton, who is Michigan's senior member in the House. 

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders called the meeting "productive."

"They listened to one another and now both have a good understanding of what the other wants. We look forward to more conversations like this," Sanders said. 

Asked if it was a constructive use of time, Tlaib said: "Every district has their member of Congress and their approach of how they want to address this crisis. If that's what they felt the need to do, then that's their right to do that." 

Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingelll of Dearborn, also a member of the Problem Solvers caucus, was not invited to the White House on Wednesday but emphasized the need to work with both sides and address the "human toll" of the shutdown. 

"We need to reopen the government and then get in a room and have a discussion about what's the best way to keep the border safe," Dingell said. "Stop holding federal employees hostage." 

Tlaib said she is co-sponsoring legislation by Rep. TJ Cox of California to provide relief to federal workers who missed their first paychecks on Friday. 

But she stressed the shutdown is affecting more than federal employees in her district, which covers part of Detroit and other communities in Wayne County, including Romulus, Inkster, Highland Park, River Rouge, Westland and Wayne.

"People don’t understand that government is about people, and there’s services behind all of this. It's not just workers. It’s what those workers were doing that’s really important," she said. 

She ticked through a list of constituents harmed by the shutdown, including the residents of roughly 450 low-income units in danger of being evicted without federal housing assistance. 

"I have one of the most polluted areas in the state of Michigan, and I don't have EPA inspectors on the ground right now to hold corporate polluters accountable," Tlaib said, referring to the Environmental Protection Agency.  

"It's important for the American people to really fight for this to never happen again. These shutdowns are not the way to a constructive negotiation process on policy," she added. 

"We're going to continue to disagree on very controversial policies, whether it's on economic justice, immigration, and we can't put people in the middle of it like this."