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We asked 11 Senate Republicans if they support giving federal contractors back pay

Several were skeptical of the idea.

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Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) speaks with reporters at the US Capitol in December 2018.
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Senate Republicans aren’t sure about paying federal contractors who missed out on wages during the longest government shutdown in US history.

While roughly 800,000 federal employees ultimately received back pay after going more than a month without their salaries, as many as 580,000 government contractors — including janitors, cafeteria workers, developers, and consultants — may not have received any compensation.

Because contractors work for third-party companies that the government pays for their services, contractors don’t get paid when these services aren’t used. During past shutdowns, contractors have had to simply chalk up those gaps in pay as a loss — a reality some lawmakers are seeking to change in the wake of the lengthy 35-day impasse.

Senators from the two parties are broadly split on the issue, however. While Democrats have overwhelmingly supported a bill that would address workers’ missing wages, Republicans blocked the legislation from being added to a spending agreement last week and many seem poised to continue doing so. (Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) have supported the measure, however.)

When asked by Vox if they would consider the bill as a standalone measure, some Senate Republicans were open to it, others were firmly opposed, and several wondered whether contractors should be paid for work they didn’t do — even if this gap in workflow was because of a shutdown they didn’t cause.

“I think it’s unfortunate they’re part of the collateral damage, but since they’re not federal employees and presumably, they were furloughed by their employer, I’m not optimistic about that being passed,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said.

A Trump administration source has also previously told HuffPost that the cost of doling out this back pay could pose a steep challenge for federal agencies.

“We’ve never done this before, and there’s so many different types of contractors,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), one of the bill sponsors, has acknowledged. As Warner and fellow sponsor Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) have emphasized, however, the legislation is not expected to incur an exorbitant cost.

“It’s true agencies would need to take administrative steps to implement the bill — just as they would with the passage of any legislation,” Smith said in a floor speech. “But ... my bill builds on an existing administrative process that is used regularly and efficiently, without large administrative costs.”

Here’s what 11 Republican senators had to say about the legislation, ahead of a vote on the spending package last Thursday.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX): “I don’t think we can pay people who didn’t work, even through no fault of their own”

Li Zhou

I had a question about federal contractors. I know that back pay didn’t make it into the agreement, but I’m wondering, would you support it if it was a standalone piece of legislation that’s brought to the floor later on?

John Cornyn

I think it’s unfortunate they’re part of the collateral damage, but since they’re not federal employees and presumably, they were furloughed by their employer, I’m not optimistic about that being passed.

Li Zhou

Since this bill sets up a mechanism that would help agencies pay out these costs, do you think that would help this kind of system move forward?

John Cornyn

I’m not familiar with the details of that, but I think it’s frankly a shame that we had to go through this whole process, and now Ms. Pelosi is agreeing to 55 miles of fencing, when she said that was immoral. We could have solved this problem a long time ago and avoided the shutdown altogether.

Li Zhou

What do you make of the intention to try to pay contractors who didn’t see this coming and lost out on wages?

John Cornyn

I don’t think we can pay people who didn’t work, even through no fault of their own. They’re not federal employees, so it’s not a federal government, federal taxpayer responsibility. I just think it’s very unfortunate.

Li Zhou

Do you think they’re comparable to furloughed federal employees?

John Cornyn

No. If they’re not working for the federal government, they’re not comparable.

Li Zhou

Do you think there should be a change to the system like the bill tries to do, to fix that and help, at least in this one-off instance, to compensate people?

John Cornyn

No, I don’t think so.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY): “To me, it really kind of depends on if they’re working or not”

Li Zhou

I had a question for you about federal contractors and whether you would support a bill that guarantees contractors back pay for the money they missed during the shutdown?

Rand Paul

I asked that question at lunch, and I think it’s not part of the bill.

Li Zhou

I think the plan from Sen. Smith is to [keep pushing it] as a standalone after the spending package passes, and I’m wondering, if that were to happen, would you —

Rand Paul

I’ll have to look at it, I don’t really know if people were doing work, if they’re not doing work. I’m not big on paying people not to work, so if they haven’t been working — this is essential, unessential, who’s working, who’s not. To me, it really kind of depends on if they’re working or not. Federal employees, it’s a little different, because it is their job to work.

I think it’s silly that we send them home and still pay for it, but I think it’s a different situation. I haven’t made a decision, but we’ll look at it.

Li Zhou

Would you consider contractors, who were not working, the same as furloughed federal employees? Do you think they should be treated the same?

Rand Paul

I don’t know. I just think that we should get away from doing shutdowns where we have people not working and paying them. It’s a kind of terrible situation. One way to fix it is I have a bill called the Shutdown Prevention Act, and it would keep spending money at a level of 99 percent of what we’re currently spending, so there would be an immediate 1 percent cut. Every 90 days that you don’t have an appropriations bill done, you get another 1 percent cut until you get to 96 percent. I think that would be an incentive for people to do it. The government wouldn’t shut down; everybody would keep working.

That’s a better policy decision than deciding whether to pay people who don’t work.

Li Zhou

For these people, who’ve been taken by surprise and have now missed a whole month of wages and can’t cover costs —

Rand Paul

I don’t have an answer on it except that I’ll look at it.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA): “I would support anything that pays somebody what we owe them”

Li Zhou

I had a question for you about federal contractors. I was wondering if you would support a bill that guarantees back pay for contractors that weren’t paid during the shutdown?

Johnny Isakson

I would support anything that pays somebody what we owe them.

Li Zhou

So you would support a bill that does that?

Johnny Isakson

This is what I said. I said would I support anything that would pay people back what we owe them. If they were a contractor that did business, like parking cars for a building. If they did the work and they didn’t get paid because we shut down, when we get out of the shutdown, we ought to pay them back. I think that’s true for everybody. If it’s good enough for TSA, if it’s good enough for others, it’s good enough for —

Li Zhou

Do you think other Republicans would support a bill that did that?

Johnny Isakson

I don’t know. I worry about this Republican.

Li Zhou

What do you make of the criticisms associated with the cost of something like that? People have said it would cost a lot for agencies to try to pay contractors.

Johnny Isakson

To pay them back? No! Let me tell you something, if a contractor knows that money is available to pay him for something that’s owed to him, he’ll fly to Texas to go get it. Or Russia, or somewhere else. Getting someone to collect the money that you owe him is no problem at all. That is the easiest thing you’ll ever be asked to do, easier than a crossword puzzle in a newspaper.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA): “I don’t know yet”

Li Zhou

Would you support a standalone bill guaranteeing back pay for federal contractors?

John Kennedy

I don’t know yet. I would just have to see it.

Li Zhou

What about the intention of trying to pay back workers who missed out on wages?

John Kennedy

My head’s not there. I’m not focused on that right now.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK): “That’s an extremely complicated issue”

Li Zhou

Would you support a standalone bill guaranteeing back pay for federal contractors?

James Lankford

There are a ton of details and I’d have to be able to look at it. That’s an extremely complicated issue, so many different types of contractors.

Li Zhou

Would you support its intention?

James Lankford

I’d have to look at it.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC): “I don’t agree, necessarily, that we would, without input from the agencies, say that they all should be entitled to it”

Li Zhou

Would you support a freestanding bill that guarantees back pay for federal contractors?

Thom Tillis

I think it depends from department to department, the nature of the work. I don’t agree, necessarily, that we would, without input from the agencies, say that they all should be entitled to it. And part of that relates to whether or not the nature of their contract allows them to do other engagements so they would get paid absent this. We need to have that information to make sure we’re not double-paying for work that wasn’t performed.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL): “I would look at the merits of it”

Li Zhou

I had a question for you about federal contractors ...

Richard Shelby

It’s not in there. We were talking about it, trying to negotiate it with some other stuff. It’s not in there. The bill is, even for me, real clean.

Li Zhou

Would you support a standalone bill that guarantees back pay for federal contractors?

Richard Shelby

I would look at the merits of it.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH): “I need to look into it. I think so.”

Li Zhou

Would you support a standalone bill that guarantees back pay for federal contractors?

Rob Portman

I need to look into it. I think so. Maybe I have, I’m not sure. Is there a bill out there to do that?

Li Zhou

Yes, Tina Smith’s bill. I think she’s going to bring it back.

Rob Portman

Maybe we’ll get back to you.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME): “I don’t know” if more Republicans will get behind it

Li Zhou

I was wondering if you’d continue to support a bill that guarantees back pay for federal contractors, I know you had signed on —

Susan Collins

Yes.

Li Zhou

Do you think more Republicans will get behind it?

Susan Collins

I don’t know.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK): “I’m not sure what member would want to bring that up”

Li Zhou

Would you support a standalone bill that guarantees back pay for federal contractors?

Jim Inhofe

I haven’t decided yet. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but it might. I’m not sure what member would want to bring that up —

Li Zhou

I think Sen. Tina Smith from Minnesota is spearheading it, and she’s said she’s going to keep pushing it. I’m curious of what you make of the intention of trying to pay federal contractors, who typically haven’t gotten back pay from shutdowns.

Jim Inhofe

Before, you are right, they have been exempt from that. So I would assume, and have been assuming, that that would continue.

Li Zhou

Because this shutdown was so long, do you think things should be different this time around?

Jim Inhofe

It wasn’t that much longer.

[Editor’s note: The partial shutdown was 14 days longer than the previous record that had been set for a government shutdown.]

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC): “It’s an admirable goal”

Li Zhou

I know back pay for federal contractors didn’t make it into the final agreement. I was wondering, if it’s a standalone piece of legislation, is that something you would support?

Tim Scott

I’d like to look at the legislation.

Li Zhou

What do you make of the intent to provide back pay for —

Tim Scott

It’s an admirable goal.

Li Zhou

What kinds of questions would you like to see answered from the bill?

Tim Scott

I’d like to see the framework of it first, before figuring out what questions I need to ask.