Rand Paul and Nancy Pelosi have virtually nothing in common. But on Thursday night, the conservativeKentucky firebrand and San Francisco Democratic leader teamed up to push Washington toward what Capitol Hill dwellers are calling the dumbest shutdown ever.
Incensed that a bipartisan budget deal would balloon the national debt, Paul delayed a roll call on a long-term budget agreement even as the government barreled toward a midnight deadline when agencies run out of money. Never mind that his protest won’t change a single word of the document.
Pelosi, meanwhile, rallied House Democrats against a bipartisan agreement that she herself helped write.
Exasperated lawmakers and staffers settled in for an all-nighter with the sole purpose of allowing federal employees to show up for work in the morning. A shutdown had been so unthinkable that the Office of Management and Budget did not issue guidance to agencies until dinner time, hours before funding would run dry.
“This is the stupidest thing to happen to Congress in three weeks,” said one Senate GOP aide. “This is even more stupid than the name of the new Kardashian baby (Stormi). This is dumber than a screen door on a submarine. This is even stupider than the kid who didn’t recognize Justin Timberlake at the Super Bowl.”
Adding to the absurdity was the pile-on from Paul's own party. The longer he dug in, the more annoyed Republicans got.
"You haven't convinced 60 senators or 51 senators that your idea is good enough for them to support," Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) upbraided Paul during a tit-for-tat on the Senate floor. "Go to work, build a coalition, make a difference. You can make a point all you want. But points are forgotten. There's not a whole lot of history books about the great points of the American Senate."
The entire spectacle was a reminder of the sorry state of Beltway politics. Even a bipartisan deal blessed by the leaders of both chambers can get caught up in extraneous drama.
Paul’s sideshow wasn’t entirely surprising. The arch-conservative has frequently used procedural delay tactics to gum up legislation he opposes, particularly on spending and spying powers, when his opposition was plainly in vain. But the last time he really went there was in 2015, so senators might have downplayed the possibility of it happening this time around.
Paul believes it’s entirely appropriate — even necessary — to cause some pain in order to call attention to what he believes is a monstrosity of a bill. He also wants to highlight the broken process: congressional leaders in both parties dropping a massive and expensive 652-page bill just over 24 hours before the shutdown deadline.
The senator wanted a vote on keeping strict budget caps in place, which would essentially undo the entire deal. But even if his amendment reached the floor, Paul is fully aware it wouldn’t pass.
"I have been asking all day. I have been asking all week for it," Paul said of the vote. "We could have literally had dozens of votes today, but we squabble because people don't want to be put on the spot. So the reason I'm here tonight is to put people on the spot."
His protest is expected to delay a Senate vote into the wee hours of the morning. Once the Senate passes the measure — a final vote could be taken around 3 a.m. Friday — the spending bill will go to the House, where lawmakers will vote around 5 a.m. or 6 a.m.
But Democrats could balk, making the latest shutdown last longer. Pelosi stressed for months that she would not agree to a long-term budget deal without a solution for so-called Dreamers. While she hoped to hold out longer for an immigration deal, she sat at the negotiating table and called the legislation “good” in a press conference Thursday,
However, Pelosi told her caucus that she would continue to withhold her support and vote “no” without a promise from Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to put a bill for Dreamers on the floor. Yet her Senate counterpart, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, has blessed the budget deal, and it's unclear whether enough Democrats in the House will help conservative Republicans derail the bill.
Most aides and lawmakers predicted the package will ultimately pass — meaning lawmakers, staff and reporters will work through the night for a shutdown in name only.
“I don’t know why we are basically burning time here while the senator from Kentucky and others are sitting in the cloakroom, wasting everybody’s time and inconveniencing the staff,” SenateMajority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) fumed on the floor.
As he left the chamber, the normally mild-mannered Texan unloaded on Paul and said there was no way the senator would get a vote on his amendment to keep budget caps in place.
“Why reward bad behavior?” Cornyn told reporters.
One retiring Republican lawmaker, Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, went further.
“When Rand Paul pulls a stunt like this, it easy to understand why it's difficult to be Rand Paul's next door neighbor,” said Dent, referring to the neighbor who assaulted Paul last year, breaking several of his ribs and sending him to the hospital. “The whole delay and filibuster exercise on the budget agreement is utterly pointless.”