Most of the trains running underneath the Capitol on Saturday were eerily empty—a ghost train running on time even as the lawmakers it’s intended to usher to votes inside the Capitol itself were nowhere in site.
With the partial government shutdown in full effect, Speaker Paul Ryan’s office doors were locked and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s suite–with an inspiring view of the Washington Monument and a National Mall bustling with tourists eager to witness what even recently was viewed as the world’s greatest legislature–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. Rau 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 taxidermied 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 hardliners 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 adamantly 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 unify 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.