All was confusion in the House of Representatives on Monday night.
Lawmakers were discussing a bill to restore full funding for the Food and Drug Administration's food safety programs. As usual, their positions were split along party lines. But many liberal Democrats, normally supporters of more money for the FDA, were speaking out against the bill, and tea party Republicans, who often criticize the agency as wasteful, were supporting it.
Blame the government shutdown.
Over the past week, House Republicans have proposed 11 bills that would allow popular federal initiatives -- from the National Institutes of Health to the Smithsonian museums to Head Start -- to reopen during the shutdown. President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders in the Senate have roundly denounced this "piecemeal strategy" and promised to veto any bill that releases a limited portion of the government from the shutdown. But Republicans in the House keep bringing the bills to the floor, forcing Democrats into the unusual position of trying to persuade Republicans not to fund federal programs.
Each time, Democratic lawmakers have argued that these federal programs have been selected for funding because their closure has attracted the most criticism from the press, not because Republicans sincerely believe they're worthwhile. "Anytime they see a bad headline, they're going to bring a bill to the floor to make it go away," Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said last Thursday.
The debate on the Food and Drug Safety Act was a case in point. At the end of last week, after several news stories on the impact of the shutdown on the FDA sparked alarm about the safety of the country's food supply, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), a tea party supporter, proposed a bill that would provide the FDA with funding to conduct ongoing activities until Dec. 15 or until the overall shutdown ends.
Monday night, Aderholt and his fellow Republicans supported the bill with seemingly earnest affirmations of the critical nature of the FDA's work.
"Members on both sides of the aisle indeed understand and appreciate the important role of the FDA," Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said. "This essential work should continue as we wait at the negotiating table for the president to join in a conversation to resolve our differences."
Some GOP lawmakers told stories of constituents who'd been killed by foodborne illness. Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) suggested that the furloughing of FDA employees imperiled American scientists' chances of winning Nobel Prizes in the future.
Democrats argued against the bill even more vigorously, describing it as a political ploy, while doing rhetorical somersaults to emphasize their philosophical commitment to food safety.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), one of Congress' foremost advocates of stricter food safety standards, called the bill "today's daily exercise in cynicism."
"For years, we've been trying to get the Republican majority to be serious about the FDA and food safety funding," she said, before noting that her Republican colleagues had voted several times to cut such funding.
"Now they are bringing up this disingenuous bill for political show," DeLauro continued. "The health of American families is not a game. These are people's lives."
Several Democrats, including DeLauro, also argued that the FDA can't protect the food supply without help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Justice and other federal agencies that would remain underfunded even if this bill passed.
When the time for debate elapsed, Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) submitted a motion to amend the FDA bill into the continuing resolution to fund the entire government that the Senate sent the House -- a tactic Democrats have tried at the end of each debate over these mini-bills. That motion failed, and the bill passed 235 to 162.
Speaking to The Huffington Post on Tuesday, Farr said he was "pissed that the whole government is shut down." He dismissed the piecemeal strategy as a game the Republicans are playing to discredit Democrats -- but a game with serious consequences.
"Passing these bills would be like seeing a school bus on fire and agreeing only to rescue the good-looking kids," he said. "It's ridiculous. I want to put out the fire."
Asked whether Democrats gained negotiating leverage from the continuation of the shutdown, Farr said yes. He added that the longer the shutdown lasts, the more respect the public has for the federal government. "The public out there is beginning to understand what the government does, and they miss it," he said.
Aderholt said in a statement Tuesday that he believed Republicans and Democrats agree on 95 percent of governmental services.
"The FDA is another example of a place where the Democrats and Republicans agree on federal funding," he said. "The Democrats should take yes for an answer."