Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was not in the Capitol Friday, when some furloughed federal workers missed their first paychecks and the government shutdown tied the mark for the longest in American history.
McConnell, who has been brutalized by Democrats for blocking votes to reopen the government, skipped his customary remarks as the Senate gaveled in, when he might have defended his decision not to allow votes until a broad deal is reached between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats over border wall funding.
Instead, McConnell – who was headed home to Kentucky, according to his staff – and other Republicans largely left the floor to Democrats who gave speech after speech assailing them for not standing up for federal workers by standing up to Trump.
“Sen. McConnell and his caucus are AWOL in the middle of this shutdown. They are hiding out. They want to hide behind the President instead of doing their jobs as leaders in a co-equal separate branch of the government,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen a Democrat from Maryland as he walked off the floor after discussing the plight of federal workers in his state. “This is the Trump shutdown, but Sen. McConnell and his caucus are becoming bigger and bigger accomplices.”
When the chamber opened at 10 a.m. ET, without McConnell in usual spot on the floor, the Senate chaplain, Rev. Barry Black, prayed for lawmakers to “open their hearts.”
“As the partial government shutdown grinds on, help our lawmakers to open their hearts to your love and to surrender their desires to your purposes,” he said.
With McConnell gone, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, filled in for the majority leader by carrying out some procedural duties on the floor, including taking steps to put a bill up that would “prohibit taxpayer funded abortions,” in the words of a Senate clerk who read the title of the bill.
When Grassley, who is a Trump ally, left the chamber, he told CNN’s Manu Raju he opposes the President declaring a national emergency and bypassing Congress to build the wall, as he has threatened to do to get around the stalled talked with Democrats. Such a move, could end the shutdown.
Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine then read aloud from missives from constituents who are terrified about missing paychecks and worried a lengthy shutdown could cause them lasting economic damage.
Kaine said that furloughed workers are actually receiving paychecks Friday, but they have nothing but zeros on them, “which is sort of like pouring salt in a wound,” he said.
In a twist, Kaine praised McConnell for passing a bill on the Senate floor Thursday, to ensure furloughed workers will get back pay once the shutdown is over.
“I do want to express appreciation to the Majority Leader,” Kaine said. “I applaud him for reaching out to the White House and speaking directly with the President about the bill. And the President indicated he would sign it.”
The truth is McConnell is a “regular order” Republican who opposed the shutdown from the start and worked hard to avoid it. He was as surprised as anyone when Trump suddenly announced at the end of last year that he would not sign bills to keep to government, as leverage to get Democrats to fund the border wall.
But he knows that only three members of his caucus have split publicly with Trump’s demands for the wall, so he doesn’t have much incentive to push back, even if he wanted to. In numerous speeches, McConnell has talked tough about the needs for stronger borders – firmly backing Trump on one of his top policy goals – and accused Democrats of changing their past positions in favor of more border security to spite Trump.
That said, McConnell has taken a lower public profile in some instances since the shutdown started, and he demanded Democrats and Trump work out an agreement without his involvement. He skipped a couple of White House news conferences that were attended by other GOP congressional leaders although he did appear before cameras this week with Trump after the President met with Senate Republicans in the Capitol.
Asked if McConnell had missed an opportunity when he didn’t show Friday, Sen. John Boozman, a soft-spoken Republican from Arkansas, defended his leader.
“I think he represents the caucus well and whatever he’s doing, he has reasons for doing,” said Boozman, who presided over the Senate. “I haven’t talked to him about what his schedule is.”
Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer also wasn’t in the Senate on Friday, he was home in New York, according to his office. And while he doesn’t have the power to schedule votes on bills that would open the government, he does have to power to continue talks with the White House, and there were no signs that happened either.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart told CNN that Democrats “have refused to move an inch. So, there is not yet a negotiated agreement to vote on. At some point, senators like Kaine and Van Hollen will stand up to their leadership and demand that they negotiate. But for now, it seems clear that all they want to do is give speeches. The Senate can’t vote on a speech.”
The lone Republican to address the shutdown on the floor was Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of the three GOP senators opposed to the shutdown. She spoke about the need for strong borders and resolving the humanitarian crisis at the southern border, and for reopening the government.
“Count me in as one who says that shutting down the government is not governing. Nobody is winning in this,” she said.
When asked by CNN about her thoughts on McConnell, she declined to weigh in on whether he should be in Washington.
“The majority leader is very strategic and has been kind of behind the scenes in so much of all of this, so he is very effective with the phones and I am not going to suggest where he should or where he shouldn’t be,” Murkowski said. “I for one and certainly wanting and desiring to be part of discussions that will lead to a solution.”
At the end of her floor speech, Murkowski did something else usually reserved for the majority leader, if he were here.
“I ask unanimous consent that when the Senate completes its business today, it adjourn until 3 p.m. Monday, January 14,” she said.
And a short time later, as furloughed workers opened paychecks with zeros on them, the Senate gaveled out for the weekend.
CNN’s Sunlen Serfaty, Manu Raju and Sarah Mucha contributed to this report.