Most of the trains running underneath the Capitol on Saturday were eerily empty—ghost trains running on time even as the lawmakers they're intended to usher to votes inside the Capitol itself were nowhere to be seen.
With the partial government shutdown in full effect, Speaker Paul Ryan’s office doors were locked and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s suite–with its inspiring view of the Washington Monument and a National Mall bustling with tourists–was also empty, its doors shuttered, much like the federal government he’s supposed to help run.
So even as Vice President Mike Pence and his entourage popped into the Capitol for a last-ditch attempt to save face by meeting with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) ahead of the holiday, the mood in the Capitol was somber, almost as if all the Capitol Police officers, floor attendants, janitors, a few congressional staffers, and a flock of reporters were trapped in purgatory.
“You’ve got to stay positive. We’ll get through this,” an officer could be heard consoling a young lady who helps oversee House floor proceedings. Like many forced to be at the Capitol over the weekend, she was trapped in Trump’s Washington even though for months she had plans to travel home to be with her family the night before.
While many officers and low-level staffers were required to show up to work, the nation’s political class had already mostly checked out of their legislative duties and were in full holiday mood.
Before McConnell formally announced there was no deal in sight and that the government would remain shuttered until at least Dec. 27th, some lawmakers did stay in Washington in case a deal magically materialized. But that doesn’t mean they were in their offices.
A few blocks from the Capitol, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) spent the afternoon at his favorite watering hole, The Tune Inn—a dingy dive bar adorned with the eerie heads of more than a dozen stuffed animals.
By the time I got there in the mid-afternoon, the incoming chair of the Natural Resources Committee was already cashed out and chatting with another regular on the curb. With a cigarette loosely hanging from his lips because his hands were clutching shopping bags filled with holiday gifts, along with the bar’s famous patty melt in a to-go box, the congressman was startled to bump into a reporter.
“Are you going to turn that thing on?” he asked of my microphone. Like most of Capitol Hill, he seemed to have already checked out of his legislative duties ahead of the holiday and already appeared to be slurring some words. It wasn’t even 4 p.m. yet.
Like most Democrats, Grijalva says his party feels no pressure to budge because Trump and the hard-liners in the GOP—who are aligned with the president, which gives them outsized control of the party’s agenda—have backed the whole party into a corner.
“It’s not going anywhere–it’s about positioning, and unfortunately for Trump and the Republicans, their position is lost,” Grijalva told The Daily Beast.
And Grijalva says his party is fully behind Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi’s position that Trump isn’t getting the $5 billion for his coveted wall—or even their new weekend request for even just $2.1 billion—that he recently began demanding.
“I think that it’s been pretty solid from our caucus that there’s no wall,” Grijalva said. “Money for security, that’s smart, I don’t think people would be [opposed] to discussing that, but you keep doing the wall in exchange for X—that is a hostage-taking that I don’t think we should support.”
That position from Democrats who have been a united force throughout this slowly unwinding debacle has Republicans frustrated because the government’s lights are now off. And with most lawmakers gone, they have no one to negotiate with, even as last week they convinced Trump to follow their dogmatic position.
“We should be here. That’s why I’m not home with the family,” a frustrated Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) told The Daily Beast while sitting alone just off the empty House chamber on Saturday. “Everyone going home for Christmas alleviates some of the pressure, just to be blunt.”
Meadows and some other conservatives had lunch with Trump at the White House earlier in the day, and that only seemed to unite them in their demands. So now no one in Washington knows how to get a large swath of the federal government funded any time soon.
“I think it could be a very long shutdown,” Meadows continued. “I think it could very easily go till January. Once it goes to January then Nancy Pelosi has to figure out how to deal with it. How long is she going to let the government be closed without making an offer?”
The old guard in the GOP, who are now dubbed “moderates” even if they are card-carrying conservatives, isn’t happy with this end-of-year insurrection from the hard-liners who seem to be putting their personal agendas above the nation and the party’s own interests.
“Sometimes my friends forget this is still a team sport, and while we may view this on television in the evenings as an individual sport—whether you’re on Fox or MSNBC or whatever—this is still a team sport,” Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) told The Daily Beast after finishing a beer with his lunch at Tortilla Coast, the same restaurant the Freedom Caucus meets at most weeks to plot their schemes to drive the party as far to the right as humanly possible.
But with only a portion of one team on the field it’s impossible to have a match, and that’s ensnared some 800,000 federal employees—some who are now furloughed and others who are forced to work without pay—along with the countless hundreds of thousands of government contractors in this end-of-year political spat.
“The hardest part will be rent. The second paycheck of the month is my ‘rent’ paycheck. Without it, next month will be tough,” a 24-year-old NASA contractor from California, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, messaged The Daily Beast. “If I don’t get paid, my short-term savings will be virtually wiped out, and I’d have to dip into long-term savings to pay for February rent if Trump keeps it up.”
That sentiment was echoed by federal workers outside the confines of the nation’s capital, many of whom have had their holiday plans upended by the shutdown. Isabel Chaloux, a 67-year-old janitor who works in downtown San Diego, was set to commute to Tijuana on Friday to visit her family for the holidays. But with a government shutdown that may affect Border Patrol members, she said she fears wait times will increase to cross the border during the busy holiday season. Speaking through a translator, Christian Ramirez, of the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Chalouz told The Daily Beast she was “very worried that Trump is going to ruin” her holiday.
Another worker affiliated with the union, 57-year-old Bonita Williams, told The Daily Beast that she does janitorial work at the State Department and was informed that she wouldn’t get paid during the shutdown.
“I won’t have enough to pay my rent” without working a regular schedule, she said. Right now, Williams is only working part-time, doing four-hour shifts at night, and she gets Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off. “I can’t afford a shutdown,” she said. “Trump ain’t gonna pay my rent.”
-- Gideon Resnick contributed reporting