The Caribou Coffee cups were stacked neatly on the U.S. Capitol steps. Two cardboard coffee pots were ready to be poured. More than a dozen reporters watched them closely. They were waiting.
A few minutes after 11 a.m. ET Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), the mastermind behind this bipartisan coffee summit, strode to the steps. He helped himself to a cup. Paul’s office insisted that this wasn’t a photo-op, but for the moment, the press were the only ones who were there. Rep. Tom Massie (R-KY), Paul’s state brethren, finally showed up. A reporter inquired if Paul was expecting more people to come.
“I hope so,” Paul said. “I hope this isn’t going to the bipartisan summit, two Republicans from Kentucky!”
After a few minutes, some more representatives and senators — all of them Republicans, except Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) — did join Paul on the front steps. They chatted amiably, sometimes about the shutdown, sometimes about NASCAR. No path to reopening the federal government emerged. But the photographers snapped their shutters, anyway.
That’s where we’re at, three days into the shutdown.
The House will take more futile votes Wednesday afternoon to fund politically popular elements of the government; the Senate won’t pass them, but even if it did, the president would veto them. So with the legislative process itself frozen, nobody — particularly Republicans, who are shouldering the blame thus far — is missing the opportunity to stage a press event to try to change the narrative.
Paul’s coffee non-summit was the second such media fodder of the day. A couple hours earlier, Republican House members who are also doctors and nurses huddled into a tiny room in the Capitol basement, decked out in their scrubs, to urge Senate Democrats to pass a House-approved bill to fund the National Institutes of Health.
Next to the podium was a huge poster of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s latest “gaffe” — which really wasn’t one, in context — appearing to dismiss concerns about kids with cancer who can’t get treatment while NIH is closed. Members like Phil Roe (R-TN), who had been an OB/GYN for more than 30 years, recalled his experiences with the kind of patients who would benefit from a re-opened NIH.
“We did this yesterday. Now I implore Senate Democrats to take this time and pass this much-needed legislation,” Roe said, the hashtag #LetsTalk drapped in front of him.
“Before coming to Washington, being a nurse, I’ve seen these families. I’ve seen the looks on their faces when they’re given hope. We have taken that hope away, and we need to replace it,” Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC), a former nurse, said moments later. “I say to Harry Reid and Democrats in the Senate: Bring this up for a vote. Don’t take hope away from those families.”
Toward the event’s end, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-SC) rebuffed a reporter’s question about bringing the Senate spending bill to the House floor, where it would likely pass and actually end the shutdown. Maybe Democrats wouldn’t vote for it like the media assumes, he suggested.
The specifics don’t really matter, anyway. That’s not the narrative that Cantor and company were trying to sell.