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Smith working on bill that would give back pay to contract workers

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Minnesota DFL convention
Sen. Tina Smith says she and some of her Democratic colleagues plan to introduce a bill that would provide back pay to contract workers.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

The partial government shutdown is now stretching into its 19th day. In a televised speech Tuesday night from the Oval Office, President Trump signaled that the shutdown will continue until more than $5 billion is secured for a border wall, a goal Democrats say is beyond reach. 

In the midst of this impasse, hundreds of thousands of federal workers are furloughed or working without pay. MPR's Cathy Wurzer spoke to Minnesota Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith about whether there was enough support to override the president and what the government may do to help workers hurt by the shutdown.

Comments have been edited for length and clarity.  

Did you hear anything in the president's speech or in the Republican reaction that could provide a starting point in shutdown negotiations?

Last night, we heard the same thing that we've been hearing from the president for over two years about immigration, about this border wall, and it was really disappointing there was nothing new there. We really need to end this shutdown now. 

One of the reasons that I asked Minnesotans, whether they're federal workers or contract workers, to share their stories is because I want to use this as a way of helping the president understand how this is affecting people in such significant ways. This is wasteful and increasingly harmful to people in our state and all across the country. 

Congressional Democrats voted in the past for steel border barriers. Would you support putting any amount of money toward a border barrier to end the shutdown?

I have supported strong border security as part of comprehensive immigration reform and this is a really important conversation that we need to be having in our country. I went down to the border in December to try to understand what's happening, especially with moms and kids and dads and teenagers who are being detained at the border. That is the humanitarian crisis that we have on our southern border. 

The problem we have right now is the lives of hundreds of thousands of federal workers and many, many more Americans are being held as bargaining chips while the president continues to talk about a border wall and frankly, we didn't even really know what it is that he is envisioning. It's really difficult to negotiate with somebody who's all over the map. 

Do you think the Congress could override a presidential veto?

  I think that's for the Republican leaders who are in charge of the Senate to discuss, but I know some of my Republican colleagues are very ready for this to end. They can see how this is hurting people. Yesterday, I was speaking with a woman who represents TSA workers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. She said two things that really stuck with me. The first was, "You know, we're professionals. We want to do a good job. We're doing everything we can to make sure that the airport works for people even though we're not getting paid." And then she said, "But you know, some people are afraid that come Friday they're not going to have the money to pay for their child care so that they can come to work." That's the real-life decisions that all these folks are going to be making in the coming days. 

You and some Democratic colleagues plan to introduce a bill that would provide back pay to contract workers. Why contract workers?

  It has typically been done that federal workers have received back pay because, through no fault of their own, they haven't been paid during the shutdowns. I brought up the question of why not look at what's happening with contract workers, and I'm working with some of my colleagues in the Senate on this. 

These are workers who might be working in the federal court buildings cleaning or providing security and they don't have any option for getting their back pay that they've lost. And it's a significant impact on their financial security. I think we ought to look at how to make sure that those folks can be made whole. To me it's just a matter of fairness. I hope to have that introduced in the coming days.