WASHINGTON - Maybe Congress shouldn't have tried to ease the pain of a government shutdown.
One reason for the extended closure of nine Cabinet departments and other agencies is the legislative version of no good deed going unpunished: congressional leaders took steps that mitigated much of the fallout from this partial shutdown.
About 75 percent of the funding for federal agencies actually got approved in September, on time, including such critical entities as the Pentagon, Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration. And then Congress moved the deadline for this year's funding for the remaining agencies until four days before Christmas.
This meant that, once the shutdown started, the most important services provided by the federal government - soldiers' salaries, veteran benefits, Social Security checks - went on, business as usual.
And the services that closed - federal museums, services at national parks, delayed tax refunds - have slowly shuttered over the holiday season, when the public was not paying much attention, and will continue over the next month.
This initially softened the blow but took away the pressure to reach a deal, and without any real pressure, today's Congress is an institution that will simply not respond.
If nothing breaks by next weekend, Saturday would mark the 22nd day of the shutdown, the longest federal shutdown ever.
That's a dubious record in a political era filled with dubious records of dysfunction, but there is, finally, a point on the horizon that might force some action.
About 800,000 federal workers who have either been furloughed or work without guaranteed pay are coming up against a big deadline.
"Look, I want to make sure government is open and people get paid. The last pay period they got paid, the next one is coming forward, where they won't," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters Friday.
Over a rolling period in mid-January, most of those federal workers will go without their first paycheck, a breach that will create hundreds of thousands of angry constituents all across the nation.
More pressure points are coming. By February, food stamps will be curtailed and tax refund checks stalled. Trash is piling up in some national parks.
Some Republicans are aware the public outrage will rise and phone calls will start to increase once constituents see reduced services. Lawmakers will hear stories about unpaid workers.
"I want to get this done. I don't want us to have to get to that point," McCarthy said.
He spoke after returning from a White House meeting of congressional leaders and President Donald Trump, during which little progress appeared to be made. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., held their own news conference, with Pelosi beginning by describing a "contentious" meeting and Schumer repeating a dire warning from Trump.
"He said he'd keep the government closed for a very long period of time, months or even years," Schumer said.
A few minutes after they finished, Trump emerged for a Rose Garden news conference with McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., at his side, confirming that he would consider leaving those federal agencies shut for months if his demands for more than $5 billion for a border wall that he promised Mexico would pay for were not met.
"If we have to stay out for a very long period of time, we're going to do that," Trump said Friday.
Back in the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called it a "spirited discussion."
"I would say the news is the president agreed to designate his top people to sit down with all the leaders' staffs this weekend, to see if we can come up with an agreement," McConnell told reporters.
But those staff-to-staff discussions have been ongoing for weeks. What's been missing are the principals reaching a deal.
While the public display of defiance on Friday might have set a dire tone, these Washington showdowns are always filled with such conflagrations. Closed-door meetings lead to dueling news conferences, leaks about the presidential demands and congressional rejection - those are normal events, based on past shutdowns and congressional brinkmanship.
What was so odd about Friday's standoff was that it took until Day 14 to have such a wild day. That's usually Day 1 of a shutdown.
Instead, on Dec. 22, the first day of the shutdown, the House and Senate adjourned and did not open again for legislative business until Thursday.
No one hunkered down for extended negotiations, a brief meeting between Schumer and Vice President Mike Pence ending with no agreement to talk again. Congressional leaders all left town for the holidays.
Having Washington all to himself over the holidays, Trump sat in the White House, just tweeting his thoughts about the standoff.
Even when lawmakers returned to the Capitol, it was short-lived.
With Democrats taking over the House, Pelosi won passage of two bills to reopen the remaining parts of the federal government while only providing funds for border security and not a wall. So, aware of Trump's opposition to the proposal, McConnell has refused to consider it.
By 11 a.m. Friday, less than 24 hours after the two chambers convened for the new Congress, the House and Senate adjourned for a long weekend, scheduled to return Tuesday evening with no deal anywhere in sight.
But at least the top leaders have met now, face to face, slowly beginning the process that has to play out before any deal can be struck. McCarthy, for instance, said he got Pelosi to define what she meant by "border security," given the Democratic consent to border funds that do not go toward building a wall.
"I actually felt good about the progress that we made. We didn't agree to anything, but in the discussion that we had, I could find a lot of areas that we could agree on," he said.
Now, if they feel some political heat in the days ahead, the leaders might actually agree to agree.
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