Senate Democrats decided they wanted to send a message to Republicans Wednesday by standing on the Capitol steps and demanding the government be re-opened. Which would have been fine, except apparently no one staffing the senators thought to check the schedule, and missed the fact that Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton had planned a "Free D.C." rally just yards away.
The result? D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and Norton walked across the Capitol driveway and joined Democrats on the steps, bringing a swarm of local reporters and television cameras with them. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., with Gray by his side, looked visibly peeved at the mayor, the protesters chanting during lawmakers' speeches, and the senators who did not wrap their pre-written remarks when was clear the routine photo-op was getting quickly out of hand.
Gray and the large contingent of local D.C. camera crews and reporters crowded around Reid when the official news conference was over, with Gray demanding answers as to why Senate Democrats did not want to give his city budget autonomy to free municipal services from the effects of a federal government shutdown. As it is, the district is technically in violation of federal law because Gray declared the city's approximately 30,000 workers essential.
"Don't screw it up," Reid told Gray in front of the cameras, reminding him that Democrats want the government open and are on his side. Multiple local reporters asked Reid what he meant by that, but the majority leader was ushered away by his security detail and staff.
Gray then got into a verbal exchange with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who took a disapproving tone with the mayor about his stunt. Boxer wanted to know why Gray was opposing re-opening the government, presumably because he mucked up the news conference demanding the GOP pass a continuing resolution and extend the debt limit.
Though Reid seems to believe his is on the side of the District, its backers' actions and words Wednesday showed they feel differently.
Speaking with a small group of reporters, Norton placed the blame squarely on the White House and Senate Democrats for D.C.'s current budget bind, praising House Republicans (and even former Speaker Newt Gingrich for largely keeping the D.C. budget out of the prolonged shutdown standoffs of the 1990s).
"[Gingrich] kept the district open through repeated shutdowns. I've asked the same of the House and the Senate, and the most we've managed to do is to get our budget out of the House. They're the senators who are holding it up," Norton said, looking at the Senate Democrats assembled on the steps of the East Front.
"The Democrats, my own colleagues in the House split with most of them going with the Democrats and the president's veto," Norton said. "Most of the Republicans voted with us. Now, maybe their votes are votes of convenience — we accept them for whatever reason because our appropriation is entirely different from a federal appropriation."
As for the planned Senate news conference, most rank and file Democrats joined leadership on stage. In addition to Reid, the four senators from Maryland and Virginia, whose states are heavily populated by federal workers currently not receiving paychecks, spoke.
Virginia Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner had to speak over the yelling protesters, whom Capitol police eventually tried to silence.
Before the "Free D.C." event merged into the Senate Democrats' news conference, Norton addressed the crowd backing her effort, suggesting they reserve their energy for visiting offices of Democratic senators this afternoon.
"What I think we should do is not to waste all of these people here, but if you want to be heard, you're entitled to go into the Senate and to go to the offices of members of the Senate," Norton told the crowd. "That may be the thing to do because if we just drown them out they may ... simply resent us."
"Any member of the public may go in. You're not going to get to see the senator, but somebody will see you — and give your message there," Norton added.