U.S. lawmakers deluged by calls from constituents in the past few weeks, urging them to help avert a government shutdown or stand firm against a new health-care law, today let voice mail answer the phones.
The political impasse over the 2010 Affordable Care Act that led to the furlough of 800,000 federal employees and the closure of offices and parks also idled services and staff in Congress. Food service and trash pickup was sparse in the Capitol as lawmakers sought a way out of the stalemate.
“We’ve got nowhere to eat and a lot of the entrances are closed,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican. By early afternoon, he had a staff of four out of 30, with phone calls to his office’s main line answered by voice mail.
Some lawmakers said the simple loss of perquisites might be enough to bring both political parties to the table.
“The first test of the shutdown will be the Senate eating boxed lunches at their Senate lunch rather than having the cafeteria serve us,” said Senator Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, referring to the catered meals during twice-a-week closed-door strategy meetings. “If they get a bad sandwich maybe it will hurry up getting us back together.”
The shutdown suspended tours of the Capitol, leaving the Washington landmark without crowds of sightseers.
The Architect of the Capitol, the office that oversees the grounds, closed the U.S. Botanic Garden near the building and is curtailing clean-up of restrooms and offices throughout the complex. Most places to get food are closed. Barber shops and dry cleaners are shuttered.
Each lawmaker decides how many staffers to retain during the shutdown.
Senator Kelly Ayotte, a first-term New Hampshire Republican, said she’s operating with a “skeletal staff” of six aides down from 40, although the phone lines will stay open.
Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, notified constituents that most of his staff won’t be at work. “My staff and I will be unable to respond to your phone calls and e-mails during this time,” he wrote.
Constituent calls to his Washington and state offices “will be forwarded to voice mail” and staff exempt from furlough will handle emergencies,’’ Emily Spain, Carper’s spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “The vast majority of constituent services will be suspended throughout the shutdown.”
Don’t Bother Calling
Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, will be hard to reach after announcing he is closing five home-state offices and suspending all constituent assistance.
“My office will not be able to assist with situations involving Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid, veterans’ benefits, immigration matters, passports, the Internal Revenue Service, securing military medals for veterans, or matters pertaining to any other federal government agency,” he said in a statement.
In the House, many lawmakers asked aides to volunteer for duty -- with the possibility both sides will agree to approve retroactive pay after the shutdown.
Representative Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, said his 20 aides in Washington and the district will answer the phones, anticipating a flood of calls from constituents angry about the shutdown combined with a deluge of requests for help from those who can’t reach shuttered agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Social Security Administration.
“With those offices being closed, they’ll call us even more because there will be no recourse,” Pallone said in an interview. “We’ll get a lot more calls and requests to help people.”
John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican leader, said he supports House Republicans in their willingness to keep the fight alive and bear the consequences on government operations.
“What I’m hearing from my constituents is that if this is the only way to stop the runaway train called the federal government, then we’re willing to try it,” Cornyn said. “We’re hearing a lot. A lot of what the message is, stay strong.”
Representative Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat who is keeping his employees at work throughout the shutdown, entered the House members’ gym today to find it without staff and basic supplies.
“The showers were still hot this morning, but no soap,” Cooper said.
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