WASHINGTON — A splintered Senate swatted down competing Democratic and Republican plans for ending the 34-day partial government shutdown on Thursday, but the twin setbacks prompted a burst of bipartisan talks aimed at temporarily halting the longest-ever closure of federal agencies and the damage it’s inflicting around the country.
In the first serious exchange in weeks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., quickly called Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to his office to explore potential next steps for solving the vitriolic stalemate. Senators from both sides floated a plan to reopen agencies for three weeks and pay hundreds of thousands of beleaguered federal workers while bargainers hunt for a deal.
At the White House, President Donald Trump told reporters he’d support “a reasonable agreement.” He suggested he’d also want a “prorated down payment” for his long-sought border wall with Mexico but didn’t describe the term. He said he has “other alternatives” for getting wall funding, an apparent reference to his disputed claim that he could declare a national emergency and fund the wall’s construction using other programs in the federal budget.
“At least we’re talking about it. That’s better than it was before,” McConnell told reporters in one of the most encouraging statements heard since the shutdown began Dec. 22.
Even so, it was unclear whether the flurry would produce results.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., whose relationship with Trump seems to sour daily, told reporters a “big” down payment would not be “a reasonable agreement.” Asked if she knew how much money Trump meant, Pelosi said, “I don’t know if he knows what he’s talking about.”
Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman said Democrats have made clear “that they will not support funding for the wall, prorated or otherwise.”
Contributing to the pressure on lawmakers to find a solution was the harsh reality confronting 800,000 federal workers, who on Friday face a second two-week payday with no paychecks.
Underscoring the strains, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., angrily said on the Senate floor that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had forced a 2013 shutdown during which “people were killed” in Colorado from flooding and shuttered federal agencies couldn’t help local emergency workers. Moments earlier, Cruz accused Democrats of blocking a separate, doomed bill to pay Coast Guard personnel during this shutdown to score political points, adding later, “Just because you hate somebody doesn’t mean you should shut the government down.”
Thursday’s votes came after Vice President Mike Pence lunched privately with GOP senators, who told him they were itching for the standoff to end, participants said. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said their message to Pence was, “Find a way forward.”
The Democratic proposal got two more votes Thursday than the GOP plan, even though Republicans control the chamber 53-47. Six Republicans backed the Democratic plan, including freshman Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who’s clashed periodically with the president.
The Senate first rejected a Republican plan reopening the government through September and giving Trump the $5.7 billion he’s demanded for building segments of that wall, a project that he’d long promised Mexico would finance. The 50-47 vote for the measure fell 10 shy of the 60 votes needed to succeed.
Minutes later, senators voted 52-44 for a Democratic alternative that sought to open padlocked agencies through Feb. 8 with no wall money. That was eight votes short. It was aimed at giving bargainers time to seek an accord while getting paychecks to government workers who are either working without pay or being forced to stay home.
Flustered lawmakers said Thursday’s roll calls could be a reality check that would prod the start of talks. Throughout, the two sides have issued mutually exclusive demands that have blocked negotiations from even starting: Trump has refused to reopen government until Congress gives him the wall money, and congressional Democrats have rejected bargaining until he reopens government.
Initially, partisan potshots flowed freely.
Pelosi accused Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross of a “’Let them eat cake’ kind of attitude” after he said on television that he didn’t understand why unpaid civil servants were resorting to homeless shelters for food. Even as Pelosi offered to meet the president “anytime,” Trump stood firm, tweeting, “Without a Wall it all doesn’t work.... We will not Cave!”
As the Senate debated the two dueling proposals, McConnell said the Democratic plan would let that party’s lawmakers “make political points and nothing else” because Trump wouldn’t sign it. He called Pelosi’s opposition “unreasonable” and said, “Senate Democrats are not obligated to go down with her ship.”
In consultation with their Senate counterparts, House Democrats were preparing a new border security package that might be rolled out today. The Democratic package was expected to include $5.7 billion, the same amount Trump wants for his wall, but it would be used instead for fencing, technology, personnel and other measures.
WATERLOO — A new Waterloo resident can’t start his job because of the partial government shutdown.
Scott Stiffel and his family moved to the Cedar Valley on Jan. 17 for a job at Waterloo Regional Airport as an air traffic controller.
The United States government is in the middle of the longest shutdown in history. Thousands of federal workers are furloughed or working without pay. Those working have been promised back pay once the government reopens.
“I knew the shutdown was in place. I assumed they were going to treat anyone with a firm offer letter the same way as they would treat federal employees, where you would still show up to work, go to work and you’d get back pay at the end of the shutdown,” Stiffel said. “I know there are hundreds of people like me that our start dates were during the shutdown, and we’re not going to get back pay.”
Until recently the family was staying at a Super 8 in Cedar Falls. They moved in with Varrel Wilcox, a local minister, Thursday.
“They’re in a tough position,” Wilcox said. “When I heard their story it was easy to yes.”
Stiffel can’t file for unemployment because he’s not a resident of Iowa yet.
“It’s kind of sucked, sharing a hotel room,” Stiffel said.
They drove from North Carolina after Stiffel received a firm offer. It took the family about 21 hours to travel here with their 3-year-old son.
Luckily Stiffel and his wife, Sara Stiffel, have enough savings to keep them going.
“We have a pretty good cushion,” he said.
Moving wasn’t new for his family. Scott Stiffel is a sergeant in the National Guard and returned from a deployment to Iraq on Sept. 1. Prior to that he served in the U.S. Marines.
He was supposed to begin his job in Waterloo on Monday.
He has gotten the chance to check in with his future co-workers in the Waterloo airport tower.
“They’ve actually been helpful with trying to get pointers to help my wife find a job out here,” Scott Stiffel said. He’s looking for part-time work too.
Sara Stiffel was able to put in an application with Cedar Valley Medical Specialist. “Honestly, right about now I’m willing to do anything,” she said.
The stress made Sara Stiffel break out in hives at one point. “It’s one thing after another,” she said.
A lot of people have reached out to the family, and several have offered a helping hand. “We’ve been really lucky we’ve met a lot of great people,” Sara Stiffel said.
She’s looking forward to having and being at home.
“We’re ready for it to be over,” Sara Stiffel said.
The best end for Scott Stiffel is a quick end to the shutdown.
“It’s pretty stressful,” he said.
DES MOINES — After being stalled in legislative traffic in recent years, a 21-year extension of a one-penny sales tax projected to bring more than a $16 billion investment in school infrastructure improvements and property tax relief by 2051 appears to be moving full-steam ahead this year.
“This is very important for our school districts to make sure they have the ability to replace existing buildings that are in need of repair or falling down or if they are a growing district and need to build a new facility,” Iowa House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Dolecheck, R-Mount Ayr, said Thursday.
“It has to happen,” added Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, who said some local school districts have been deferring building and maintenance until the Legislature extends the Secure an Advanced Vision for Education Extension (SAVE) beyond 2029, when it is scheduled to expire.
Without the guaranteed 20-year revenue stream from SAVE, school districts face bond financing interest rates 1 to 1.5 percent higher, Dolecheck said.
After hearing support from representatives of school boards, teachers, farmers and other interest groups Thursday, a subcommittee sent House Study Bill 18 to the full House Education Committee for action as soon as next week.
The House approved a similar bill 95-3 last year, but it was not taken up by the Senate. This year, Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, plans to move similar legislation out of subcommittee next week.
Like Dolecheck, she said the extension is vital for districts of all sizes across the state.
“For a lot of districts, they’re not necessarily building but replacing roofs and boilers and paving sidewalks,” Sinclair said. “For a lot of districts, this is routine maintenance and it is essential if we don’t want (the cost) to come out of the general fund, which would mean an increase in property taxes.”
She thinks senators want more discussion of the property tax relief aspects of the bill to make sure it is going to the right places.
Some lobbyists questioned whether too much of the future SAVE revenue would go to property tax relief instead of school construction.
“Although the additional property tax relief would not be our favorite thing to do, we know it’s necessary to get broad bipartisan support,” Margaret Buckton of Rural School Advocates and the Urban Education Network told the subcommittee.
“Do we need to do that or are there better uses for programs for the students?” Brad Hudson of the Iowa State Education Association asked. “We know it’s always a balancing act to pass anything. We’ll always raise that with you, but at this time we feel this legislation is moving in the right direction.”
The bill also would direct a yet-to-be-determined amount of money toward career academies, which is one of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ priorities.
HSB 18 would increase the amount of SAVE that goes into property tax relief. The Property Tax Equity Relief fund would grow by 1 percent per year when SAVE revenue grows by 2 percent over the previous year. The fund would be capped at $12 million.
In fiscal 2017, the 1-cent sales tax yielded $454.3 million to SAVE and $9.75 million to the tax relief fund. If revenue grows as projected — 2.45 percent annually — in 2051 that means $893 million will go to SAVE and $121.9 million to the tax relief fund.
Subcommittee members and lobbyists suggested changing language in the bill that would require districts to secure school buildings before building athletic facilities. Emily Piper of the Iowa Association of School Boards said a survey of districts found 85 percent already have secured entrances. She preferred language in a Senate draft that would not force districts to retrofit buildings that will be replaced.
If approved by the Education Committee, the bill must go to Ways and Means because it involves taxation.
CEDAR FALLS — NewAldaya Lifescapes plans to build a community campus for residents 55 years and older in Cedar Falls.
The proposal calls for 129 to 144 units on 42 acres at the southeast corner of West 12th Street and Union Road. A variety of configurations including singles, duplexes and multi-unit buildings would result in a residential density of 3.07 to 3.42 units per acre. Exact amounts will be developed as the project moves forward.
NewAldaya would purchase the land near the Robinson-Dresser Sports Complex from developer Brent Dahlstrom.
The proposal asks the city to rezone the 42.3-acre parcel from agricultural to residential. The matter was brought before the Planning and Zoning Commission on Wednesday, which did not act. The land has been a zoned agricultural since 1970.
But residents who live close to the proposed development expressed concerns about storm water runoff and increased traffic.
Mark Sigwarth, who would live adjacent to the development, came with Scott Hadberg, representing the Wild Horse Ridge Home Owners Association — along with at least three other speakers — to address drainage concerns surrounding the development.
Sigwarth said he’s lived in the area for 22 years.
“A good portion of the property that you’re talking about is in the 100-year flood plain zone,” Sigwarth said. “The area in question changes very quickly when we receive any type of rain due to the amount of run-off funneled there.”
Run-off from Pheasant Ridge and Walter’s Ridge Golf Course and other properties flows into the proposed development area, Sigwarth said.
The 100-year flood plain already can’t handle the water adequately, Sigwarth said. Another development there would only make it worse.
“I ask you to table this for a long way down the road and physically go up there during a rain storm,” he said.
Sigwarth also objected to the added traffic the development would bring.
“Put yourself in our shoes, because that’s your job,” he said.
Commissioner Brad Leeper asked Jon Biederman, a civil engineer with Fehr Graham Engineering, about the concerns.
“Are we going to make this better?” Leeper asked. “I’m hearing a lot of legitimate concerns.”
Biederman said developers have drainage plans to keep water out of other areas of the neighborhood. The flood plain boundary would be located outside of building sites, according to city documents.
“We’re certainly maintaining the flood plain. There’s no intent to reduce that or eliminate that at all,” Biederman said.
NewAldaya CEO said Millisa Tierney reiterated that sentiment: “We don’t want water runoff either for us or our neighbors.”
The P & Z Commission will vote on the matter at its February meeting.