Veterans groups that planned trips to the World War II Memorial on the National Mall are being granted access despite the government shutdown, while the Republican National Committee offered Wednesday to pay for guards to keep the site open.
More than 125 World War II veterans from Mississippi and Iowa were initially kept out of the memorial Tuesday, but members of Congress intervened and helped push aside barriers to escort the veterans into the memorial.
National parks across the country closed Tuesday due to the federal budget impasse.
Now the World War II Memorial has become a political symbol in the bitter fight between Republicans and Democrats over the government shutdown and who is at fault.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus went to the memorial Wednesday and said the committee would pay to keep five guards on duty to keep it open.
“The Obama administration has decided they want to make the government shutdown as painful as possible, even taking the unnecessary step of keeping the Greatest Generation away from a monument built in their honor,” he said.
The Democratic National Committee quickly responded.
“We’ve already been working on a plan to open the memorial — and the entire government — after the GOP caused them to close,” said DNC spokesman Mo Elleithee. “It’s called a clean funding resolution, and it sounds like the votes are there if the speaker would just call for a vote. It would save the economy a lot of money and get the memorial and government open a whole lot faster.”
The National Park Service has received offers from states, localities and businesses to pay for or provide support to reopen parks, said Jennifer Mummart, a spokeswoman for the agency’s National Capital Region.
“We have declined all of these offers because we are a national system operated by the National Park Service, which now, of course, lacks funds for daily operations,” Mummart said. “So, while we truly appreciate the offers of support, they are not offers we can accept.”
The park service already made provisions Wednesday to allow veterans groups into the memorial during the government shutdown.
Spokeswoman Carol Johnson said the Honor Flight Network, which brings World War II veterans to Washington, is being granted access to conduct First Amendment activities at the memorial.
Johnson said she’s unaware of any plan in place to arrest, or even stop, the veterans or any other groups from breaching the federal barriers.
“The National Park Service depends on congressional appropriations to stay open,” she said. “Without staff or funding to ensure the safety of visitors, the security of the memorials, and the continued operation and maintenance of park facilities, the memorials on the National Mall — just like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon — are closed.”
“We’re asking for cooperation. We’re not seeking a confrontation,” she said.
Concerns have grown that an extended shutdown could lead to greater frustration at the National Mall and other parks around the country. During the last government shutdown in 1995, which lasted 28 days, the outcry was so great over national park closures that the Republican governor of Arizona sent National Guard troops to the Grand Canyon in an attempt to keep the park open.
“I literally had hundreds of calls from all over the country from local groups, Boy Scouts, school parties, which had planned on park visits and had to be turned away at the very entrance to the park,” said Bruce Babbitt, who was U.S. interior secretary then.
Many of the veterans had been looking forward to the all-expense-paid trip for months.
Bob Butler, 92, of Olathe, Kan., who served on the USS Dayton cruiser, was happy to have the opportunity to come to Washington.
But he said the shutdown was a disappointment. He declined to cast any blame on either party.
He sees the shutdown, partly, as a consequence of living in a democracy where leaders have strong views. But that didn’t stop him from poking a little fun at what he sees as Washington’s dysfunction before he visited the wreath honoring Missouri veterans.
“They’re probably doing a better job here than they do in the Capitol,” he said of several Congress members who were on hand to greet the veterans. “But we appreciate what they do for us. And thank goodness if we don’t like them we can get somebody else in.”