By Mark Reynolds
WARWICK — Standing next to union representatives for some federal workers, all four of the state’s federal lawmakers on Monday called for President Donald Trump and other Republicans to take action to end the longest U.S. government shutdown in American history.
The larger group and U.S. Sheldon Whitehouse’s references to the famous groundhog known as “Punxsutawney Phil” helped distinguish Monday’s presser from a similar event staged exactly a week before on Jan. 7.
Whitehouse set out to ratchet up pressure on the Republican majority leader in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, accusing McConnell of abetting the shutdown by refusing to introduce bipartisan spending bills to the floor of the Senate, where he says the legislation would win passage and end the shutdown.
“But we haven’t seen much of leader McConnell,” Whitehouse said during the news conference in a meeting room at T.F. Green Airport. “He’s become the `Punxsutawney Phil’ of the shutdown crisis. Down in his groundhog hole refusing to do anything, refusing to call up bills. And it’s time for our Republican colleagues to root him out of his hole before we get to actual Groundhog Day and let the Senate do its business.”
U.S. Rep. David Cicilline suggested that the shutdown is a political stunt that aims to, in part, distract the public’s attention away from various problems that have confronted the administration, including the resignation of Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis and recent developments in the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
“It’s time the Senate Republican leadership recognizes they don’t work for the president of the United States,” Cicilline said.
Alerted to Whitehouse’s “Punxsutawney Phil” comments, a spokesman for McConnell, David Popp, said that McConnell has “spoken extensively” about the shutdown. Also, both McConnell and New York Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer, have both stated publicly that “there will be no more votes on this issue until there is an agreement between Democrats, Republicans and the White House,” Popp said.
U.S. Rep. James Langevin talked about two milestones in the crisis over the weekend: federal workers missing their paycheck on Friday and the shutdown becoming the longest such closure in history.
The president of the air traffic controllers’ union, Peter Geddis, said the shutdown has impeded the badly needed hiring and training of controllers at a time when the country has hit a 30-year low point in employment.
The shutdown “will only exasperate a staffing crisis,” creating more flight delays, said Geddis who is president of the local unit of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
Air traffic controllers, Geddis said, have not been paid for their work during the shutdown and are facing hardships as they log shifts without assistance from non-essential employees who are not working at all during the shutdown.
For rhetorical effect, Frank Womack, a representative of the American Federation of Government Employees, asked a question: Why should employees be forced to deplete their meager savings now?
“On behalf of those folks who still come to work like they’re supposed to, I would like President Trump to open the government full time,” Womack said.
George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, referred to the shutdown as “self-imposed,” saying that it is the consequence of a “selfish and illogical strategy” by Trump.
Nee drew a contrast between the president’s politics on the shutdown, which he likened to the behavior of a “petulant child,” and the work of federal employees who are staying on the job “out of a sense of responsibility and commitment.”
“This is beyond comprehension that we could be in this kind of a situation,” Nee said.
At the back of the room, an officer wearing the royal blue uniform of the U.S. Transportation Safety Agency, David G. Langlais, had just experienced his first weekend without a paycheck. On Friday, he had searched for a part-time job, he said, adding that he lives “paycheck to paycheck” and he worries about coworkers who are concerned with feeding young children.
“I just hope they come to some form of agreement and open the government back up,” Langlais said.