Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) is at the center of efforts by fellow Democrats to increase pressure on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to consider House-passed legislation that would end the partial government shutdown.
Late Monday he led a conference call intended to unify the Democratic Caucus behind a push to force votes on agency funding bills approved by the House this week.
Immediately after the call, Van Hollen spoke with Maryland Matters senior reporter Bruce DePuyt. What follows is a transcript of their conversation, lightly edited for space and clarity.
Maryland Matters: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said she plans to have her chamber approve a series of bills that would open federal agencies one at a time. This is intended to boost pressure on Republicans in the Senate. Do you think this strategy can succeed?
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D): Yes. We have to put more pressure on the Senate, so what the House plans to do will help generate that pressure. The Senate Democrats are going to take the position that the first order of business has to be opening up the government. What that means is that we want Sen. McConnell to bring up for a vote [Tuesday] the House bills that have already been sent to the Senate to open the government. And I just got off a conference call with other senators to say ‘we are united in making it clear that we’ve got re-open the government and that it’s got to be the first order of business.’
MM: The president says he’s responding to a crisis. Is he? Or is he creating one?
Van Hollen: He’s manufactured a crisis. We all support border security. We’ve always worked to do that. The bills that passed last year and again this year in the Senate provide lots of resources for border security, but the notion that you’re going to have this 2,000-mile wall, and that that is the smartest, most effective way to get security, is delusional.
We need to listen to the experts. We need to take the most effective measures for border security, but we shouldn’t be shutting down the government as we discuss what’s the most effective way to secure the border.
MM: You just met with a group of federal workers who are being impacted by the shutdown. Many of them told you their personal stories. What sticks with you the most?
Van Hollen: This is going to get worse by the day. You’re going to see more and more people across the country harmfully impacted by the shutdown. And I’m talking about public services. We’re already seeing what’s happening in some of our national parks. But you’re going to see when people try to access their mortgages through some federal agencies, you’re already seeing it in a lot of farm service agencies, and you’re also of course seeing the total unfairness of 800,000 federal employees going without pay. Hundreds of thousands of them are working without pay, hundreds of thousands of them have been furloughed involuntarily and going without a paycheck. And that’s already starting to squeeze budgets.
I went over to Prince George’s Community College and met with Dr. Dukes (school president Charlene Dukes). The first thing she said to me is that some parents are calling. They want to know how they can adjust their payment plan because they’re furloughed federal employees. So the impacts are very real and harmful.
MM: Typically federal workers are made whole when a shutdown ends. Contractors are a different story. You’re working on a bill with Senators [Ben] Cardin (D-Md.), [Mark] Warner (D-Va.) and [Tim] Kaine (D-Va.). How would it work?
Van Hollen: The purpose of the bill, which we’re still working on, is to help low-wage service employees who work for federal contractors who have been denied work. We’re not talking about executives of big contractors. That’s not who this is aimed at, at all. This will not benefit them. It is designed, for example, if you’re an employee at a janitorial services company, and they lay you off because you’re not cleaning the federal building, we don’t think they should be bearing the brunt of the shutdown.