When elderly veterans pushed their way through police barricades Tuesday to get to the World War II memorial on the Mall, they not only became an instant online sensation, but also a symbolic protest against the government shutdown.
It wasn’t just in D.C.
National Park Service sites became a focus of the shutdown debate across the country, as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite national parks closed, and families had to cancel or alter long-planned vacations.
“In Nevada today — it is 7 in the morning out there — they are closing Great Basin National Park,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said as he opened his chamber for business Tuesday morning. “Lake Mead Recreational Park will be closed. Red Rock Recreation Area — over a million people come there every year. The visitor center will be closed.”
With Congress stalemated on how to fund the government for fiscal year 2014, which began Tuesday, government agencies gave nonessential employees a few hours to take care of last-minute business and then sent them home to wait out the legislative gridlock in Washington.
A number of popular programs and agencies drew sympathy — including the National Institutes of Health, and the Education and Veterans Affairs departments. But time and again, lawmakers returned to the closure of the national parks as a black mark that needed to be erased.
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Members of Congress touted the economic benefits that come from the tourists at national parks in their states and districts, and nowhere was that more prominent than in Washington, where the shutdown served as a reminder of just how big a role the National Park Service plays in running key roadways and maintaining much of the green space that decorates the city.
House Republicans tried to push through a quick solution late Tuesday, proposing a bill to specifically fund national park sites across the country, as well as Smithsonian museums and a few other major Washington landmarks, at a cost of about $3 billion.
That bill failed to get the two-thirds vote needed to pass under expedited rules in the House.
With funding stalled, fences went up on park service property across the Washington region early Tuesday — often in places where there have never been barricades before. That was the case at the National World War II Memorial.
Republicans said the barricades were proof that President Obama was trying to make the government shutdown more painful than it needed to be — much in the same way they said the White House oversold the damage from the budget sequesters.
“These are places without doors or without gates. Yep — the Obama administration is going out of its way to erect barricades and have people manning them in order to keep people out,” said Rep. Doc Hastings, Washington Republican.
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Democrats countered that the guards had to be posted to keep people from defacing memorials that were closed and not being patrolled regularly, saying those were the tough decisions the government is facing in the wake of Congress’ failure to pass the annual spending bills to keep federal agencies running.
The budget fight, though, was far from the minds of the veterans who flew in from Mississippi, Iowa and other states as part of “honor flights,” which bring the aging heroes to view the monument built to glorify their sacrifices.
Arriving on Tuesday, the veterans, many of them in wheelchairs and escorted by members of Congress, found the barricades blocking their way. They began to mass up against the fence, which was when Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, decided it was time for action.
He said he walked over to the guards watching the site and began to talk to them, creating a distraction that the veterans used to push aside the barriers and enter the circular stone memorial. Talking to reporters later, Mr. King said he was proud to have helped.
“I rank this as one of the best days I’ve had a chance to be here in Washington — perhaps the best,” he said.
The park service said it would rethink its policies.
In the meantime, photos of the veterans defying the service and its barricades went viral online, and drew strong support from both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill.
“Good for them!” tweeted Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War.
Several lawmakers said they were planning to donate their salaries they receive during the shutdown to honor flight organizations in their home states.
“WWII vets shouldn’t face closed DC memorials. During #shutdown, I’ll donate pay to OH-based Honor Flight Network,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, wrote in a Twitter message.