Senators scramble back to DC to deal with standoff

Posted at 1:26 PM, Dec 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-21 16:17:06-05

The end-of-the-year chaos consuming the Capitol over a possible government shutdown was captured fittingly Friday when senators who had been abruptly called for a meeting with the President to try to end the standoff found they couldn’t get into the White House.

In all the haste, no one had told the Secret Service they were coming.

“Things are so chaotic at the White House that some Republican senators can’t get in because Secret Service didn’t even have time to clear them (or the staff who is driving them there!),” a source who asked not to be identified told CNN.

Most senators had left town for the Christmas recess Wednesday after they passed — almost unanimously — a short-term spending bill to keep the government running. So when President Donald Trump reversed course Thursday and said he would not sign the bill unless it had $5 billion to build a border wall, it left senators scrambling to catch flights and trains back to DC for a possible vote Friday.

But getting back might not be easy — or even doable — for some, as one of the busiest travel days combined with bad storms across much of the country led to the arrivals board at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport glowing red with delays.

One person who did get back: Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz, who tweeted that he had flown all the way home to Hawaii, had a “17-minute visit with the fam” and then flown back to Washington, arriving at Washington Dulles International Airport very early Friday morning.

“She gave me some clean underwear and a T-shirt,” Schatz said of his wife. “And was able to hug the kids and then turn right around.”

Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, told CNN he had landed in his home state at 5 p.m. Thursday and then turned around to catch a 5:45 a.m. flight Friday to make it back. He didn’t get to DC in time to attend the White House meeting, though.

Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from relatively nearby Delaware, took the train home Thursday night, had dinner with his family and informed them he’d have to return in the morning.

Defeated Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri noted it’s her second “last day” in the Senate and she feels like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.” She flew back from St. Louis but said she doesn’t plan to stick around if there’s an extended shutdown.

“I’m going to leave at some point whether they’re done or not,” she said. “If they’re going to shut down the government, I’ll leave it to them to figure out how to find the 60 votes to get it open.”

At issue is whether the House-passed bill with extra border wall money could pass the Senate, where at least nine Democrats would have to join with all Republicans to get the 60 votes it would need, something that is highly unlikely even in the season of miracles.

One Democratic senator threw up his hands and shrugged.

“I have no freaking clue,” said the senator, who asked not to be identified, about what might happen next, summing up the collective view from the Senate about the unexpected end-of-session standoff.

Others who don’t know what lies ahead are the Secret Service personnel at the White House, who had to delicately deal with senators and their staffs, who they didn’t expect to show up at their checkpoints.

They are employees of the Department of Homeland Security, the agency at the center of the battle over the border wall money. If the department closes, they are considered “essential” and would have to work without pay until the issue is resolved.