As thousands of federal workers in Alaska miss their first paycheck of the partial government shutdown, members of the state’s congressional delegation are searching for solutions to an impasse that’s already one of the longest in history.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, concerned about the hardship on federal workers and Alaska’s economy, said Thursday she’s working with a group of Senate colleagues on a short-term funding bill that would open government and provide a window to address President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in border wall funding.
With government temporarily reopened, there would be a period of time to resolve the issue over the wall, after which full appropriations bills could be passed, Murkowski said in a phone interview.
“We’re trying to offer up a process on how we can address some of these issues led by the president’s priority for border security, and do this at the same time as we’re able to open the government,” she said.
In Alaska, 5,207 federal workers will miss a paycheck Friday, said Dave Owens, Alaska representative for the American Federation of Government Employees union. The shutdown that began on Dec. 22 affected about 800,000 federal workers in nine agencies.
The Senate on Thursday unanimously passed a bill to make sure federal employees are paid retroactively, after the stalemate ends.
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Some workers could be in dire straits by then, Owens said.
“I’ve never seen such ingrained political differences,” he said. “This thing has no end in sight.”
He said many federal workers aren’t sure how they’ll cover expenses, including in Fairbanks with high heating costs amid nearly 40-below temperatures. No paycheck on Friday will be really hard for some employees, such as airport screeners now working without pay. They often make less than $40,000 a year, he said.
“A lot of people in Fairbanks are really worried because their heating bills are outrageous,” he said. “This is the worst possible time to end up with a shortage of funds.”
Alaska is home to about 11,000 federal workers, not counting the U.S. Postal Service and the military, he said. Compared to other states, Alaska has one of the highest percentages of federal employees making up its workforce.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, who supports Trump’s effort to expand the wall, said he spoke on the Senate floor Thursday about the importance of approving retroactive pay. In a spirit of “shared sacrifice,” he also called the secretary of the Senate on Thursday, and asked that his pay be withheld.
Sullivan said a sticking point with a short-term spending bill is the length of time it would cover.
He said the measure would require a commitment from key members of the House and Senate that Congress will meet Trump’s request for wall funding. Other issues would also be wrapped in the measure to broaden support, including immigration reform.
Sullivan said he must see the proposal to know whether he’d support it.
“I would need to see the details of it first, but the direction of nailing down the border security number first is something I’m supportive of,” he said.
In a video address released on Wednesday, Sullivan said greater border security is needed to stop the “humanitarian crisis” that’s tied to the nation’s opioid epidemic and “evil” human traffickers who lead children into “lives of hell.”
“It’s a fact that drug smugglers, and human traffickers are exploiting our border with Mexico,” Sullivan said. “And it’s also a fact that strong borders” with physical barriers sharply reduce illegal traffic, he said.
Sullivan said he’s been focused on minimizing shutdown impacts in Alaska.
He’s worked with officials at the closed National Marine Fisheries Service to make sure valuable fisheries open on time, with federal support, he said. He’s working on an effort to make sure Coast Guard personnel are paid.
“They are on the verge of becoming the only military service not being paid,” he said. “They’re risking their lives on a daily basis, but they won’t be paid.”
The Democratic National Committee blasted Sullivan in a statement Thursday, calling him “complicit in the Trump shutdown" for not working with Democrats on a solution. It called concerns about border safety a “Republican-caused crisis."
“Alaskan families shouldn’t have to pay the price for Trump’s political stunts and temper tantrums,” the statement said. “Democrats are taking action to end the Trump shutdown, and it’s time for Sen. Sullivan and his Republican colleagues to join them.”
Rep. Don Young has said he’s likely to join Democrats to support spending bills to end the shutdown, according to the Alaska Public Radio Network. But he didn’t side with eight Republican colleagues who broke ranks in the House on Wednesday and voted to fund the Treasury Department and IRS.
Young believes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not negotiated in good faith with Republicans, said an email from Pamela Day, Young’s chief of staff.
“The congressman would like to vote for these spending bills as he is frustrated with this partial shutdown," the statement said. “However, the speaker has decided to play to the cameras, act unilaterally and bring up bills that have no chance of being voted on by the Senate, nor signed by the President.”
Murkowski said she doesn’t know if the short-term funding measure will work, with tension on both sides building.
“Democrats don’t want to talk about what a path forward might be until they get a commitment to open the government,” Murkowski said. “Well, the administration doesn’t want to talk about opening the government until we can have a conversation about how we’re going to deal with the border security issues."
“It’s a pretty small needle we’re trying to pass this thread through,” she said.
She said her office has been talking to a wide range of federal workers affected by the shutdown, the second-longest in history at 20 days on Thursday.
“Many of these employees and their families live paycheck to paycheck and they have real concerns about being able to pay medical bills, rent, and even their gas bill to stay warm while temperatures in the state dip into the negatives,” her office said Thursday.
“We’re hearing from air-traffic controllers that are working, even overtime shifts, to keep Alaska’s air transportation running smoothly — they have no paycheck in sight,” her office said.
But the impacts extend beyond federal workers, she said. Government contractors aren’t being paid and companies that rely on work done by agencies like the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service could suffer. Income from valuable fisheries and support for federally funded tribes are at risk.
“So as we consider what this lapse in appropriations means for Alaska’s thousands of federal workers and the families they’re working to support — it is equally important to understand the ripple effect on nearly every industry in Alaska, as a whole,” her office said in a statement.