Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who has been relatively quiet since the shutdown began in December, issued a challenge to elected officials to set their egos aside to resolve the longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history.
"We can continue to hope that our leaders will recognize that this is an easy problem to solve. I mean, just take your ego out of it," Carson said.
When asked for clarification, a HUD spokesperson said Carson is referring to Congressional leaders, which would include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
"They need to send the President an acceptable bill so that important government functions can continue," the spokesperson said in a written statement to NPR.
Carson's statements come as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross downplayed the hardships caused by a partial government shutdown and said he was puzzled by reports of federal workers turning to food banks and other relief. He suggested, instead, that workers take out loans to tide them over.
"True, the people might have to pay a little bit of interest," said Ross. "But the idea that it's 'paycheck or zero' is not a really valid idea."
The partial federal shutdown, now into its 34th day, stems from President Trump's demand for $5.7 billion to expand the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and a tightening of immigration laws.
Democrats have insisted the president reopen the government first, and pay the 800,000 furloughed federal workers who are set to miss their second paycheck Friday, before negotiating a broader immigration deal.
Carson said even with back pay, many federal workers won't be made "whole."
"These federal workers, I mean, yes I know we're going to give them back pay, but that doesn't take care of the interest if they borrow money," Carson said.
He said the longer the shutdown goes, the harder it's going to be on federal employees.
"We really need to think about them, as opposed to some political victory. And it does worry me about the future of our country. If we're going to do everything based on ideology and hatred, I just don't see how we are going to be successful as a country," said Carson.
Approximately 95 percent of HUD employees have been furloughed. Those who have been called back to work without pay are "working around the clock" to make sure Americans who rely on HUD for housing assistance don't get evicted, according to Carson.
Carson's comments came at the annual Point-In-Time headcount survey in Washington, D.C. this week. It's a snapshot of the number of people experiencing homelessness on a given night and is typically conducted by jurisdictions in January that receive funding from HUD to combat homelessness.
In the Senate Thursday, as expected, two competing measures failed that would have ended the standoff over border wall funding and reopened the government.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Every day of the partial government shutdown, funds that help millions of low-income people buy food or afford a home come closer to running out of money. Ben Carson oversees some of those programs. He is secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He's been mostly out of the spotlight since the shutdown began in December. But in an interview with NPR News, he challenged elected officials to set their egos aside.
BEN CARSON: We can continue to hope that our leaders will recognize that this is an easy problem to solve. Just take your ego out of it.
INSKEEP: Secretary Carson was speaking with NPR's Brakkton Booker, who's in our studios.
Brakkton, good morning.
BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Where'd you find him?
BOOKER: So we were at an event in D.C., where we were talking with homeless people. And HUD staffers and Ben Carson were trying to get basic information from the homeless population about health information and also how they became homeless.
INSKEEP: Oh, this is a survey that HUD staffers - Housing and Urban Development staffers - do all the time. And on this occasion, the secretary himself attended the...
BOOKER: Yes, that is right. So what I was talking to him - you know, it's hard to get this man riled up. He never really gets, really, that flustered. But it was - his frustration was evident. And you heard him say, our leaders, and, take your ego out of it. So no doubt he was talking about Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But, perhaps, he was also talking about President Trump.
INSKEEP: Did you get a clarification on that?
BOOKER: Yes. Well, HUD staffers came back to me later and said, oh, no, no, no. He's just strictly talking about congressional leaders there.
INSKEEP: Ah - not talking about the president when he mentioned ego. But that is a different tone than some other members of the cabinet, like the Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who acted baffled on television yesterday about why federal workers weren't just taking out loans to pay their bills.
BOOKER: Right. Ben Carson actually told me he was actually worried about federal workers, many of whom work at the Housing and Urban Development. He told me that, you know, even when these federal workers get back pay, they will never be whole. This is what he had to say.
CARSON: I mean, yes. I know we're going to give them back pay. But that doesn't take care of the interest if they borrow money. It doesn't make them whole again. And what - we really need to think about them as opposed to some political victory. And it does worry me about the future of our country.
BOOKER: Federal workers' missed paychecks aren't Carson's only worry. As we've said before, he heads a department that provides rent payments for millions of Americans. And then there's Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Everything from nutrition assistance to affordable housing programs are on the line. By the end of February, many of those safety net programs are expected to dry out if the government fails to reopen. Again, Ben Carson.
CARSON: The real danger comes on March 1.
BOOKER: March 1.
CARSON: That's where the problem is.
BOOKER: Even before March comes, HUD has more pressing issues. Just after the start of the new year, the department announced more than a thousand low-income housing contracts with private landlords expired. That left some unpaid HUD staffers scrambling to find any unused funds. Some landlords got lucky, but hundreds more did not. HUD is urging those unlucky ones not to evict tenants and to use reserve funds to cover what the department can't supply.
CARSON: And I know no one's ever been evicted during a shutdown. But we've never had one that lasts this long, either.
BOOKER: All of this is taking a toll on Jennifer McQuerrey.
JENNIFER MCQUERREY: No, I'm not a tenant in jeopardy of losing my home. However, I am a landlord in jeopardy of losing everything.
BOOKER: McQuerrey owns 10 properties in Charleston, W.Va., where she rents to low-income tenants with Section 8 housing vouchers. The tenants pay a portion of their income towards rent. And normally, HUD supplies McQuerrey with the difference. She says she's operating very close to the red and can't afford a single missed payment.
MCQUERREY: If one Section 8 payment does not come through, I will default on my mortgage.
BOOKER: She did receive a January payment. But with no end to the shutdown in sight, she's having second thoughts about doing business with the government in the future.
MCQUERREY: You know, yes, there's going to be some vacancy. There's going to be some unexpected expenses. I just never thought the federal government could kind of be the cause of my downfall.
BOOKER: Other departments are making on-the-fly changes as the shutdown inches closer to its sixth week. The Agriculture Department runs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and WIC, which helps low-income women and children. Those programs are expected to have funds until - you guessed it - early March. Robert Rector studies poverty and welfare policy at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation. While some people are panicking about programs running out of money, he says they shouldn't yet.
ROBERT RECTOR: So far, there hasn't been much of any impact on any poverty programs.
BOOKER: Rector says there are 90 different government programs to help the poor, which cost way more than the $5.7 billion the president wants for his U.S.-Mexico border wall.
RECTOR: For every thousand dollars that the government spends across the board, the president is asking for $1 for a wall. And to basically put the food stamp program in jeopardy because you don't want to spend any money to constrain illegal immigration is, I think, in the long term, not a very viable strategy.
BOOKER: Rebecca Vallas disagrees. She's the vice president of the poverty program at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. She sees cause for concern in Trump's threats to keep the government shuttered for months or even years over border wall funding.
REBECCA VALLAS: To say that we shouldn't be worried about the fact that millions and maybe even tens of millions of Americans could see their food and housing and other basics jeopardized because of this administration's unprepared handling of this shutdown, it frankly boggles the mind.
BOOKER: So as you know, Steve, in the Senate yesterday, a pair of bills each failed to get the 60 votes needed to end the government shutdown. So Senate leaders are continuing to talk. So that's an improvement. But to Rebecca Vallas' point, the shutdown lingers on. And many low-income Americans are concerned that their federal assistance will go away once the federal government funds really run out in February.
INSKEEP: Brakkton, thanks for the reminder that this is affecting not only 800,000 federal workers and a lot of federal contractors as well but also people who depend, in one way or another, directly on the U.S. government. What are the various parts of the government doing to prepare for an even longer shutdown, should that happen?
BOOKER: So that's the million-dollar question, right? We know that The Washington Post reported earlier this week that acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney asked different agency heads to supply a list of programs that were in dire need of funding if the shutdown runs into March. And when I spoke to HUD Secretary Ben Carson earlier this week, he did acknowledge that he was compiling lists but did not divulge which programs were going to be in that list that he sends over to the White House.
INSKEEP: Although, it's a little odd to try to figure out, like, how you adjust and how you pay for things because the point of shutting the government down is to shut it down. And yet you have the administration trying to ease the effects of the thing that it is, in fact, participating in doing.
BOOKER: That's right. But there are millions of people that rely on federal assistance to keep a house and keep food on the table, so they're really trying to mitigate the dire impacts of the shutdown.
INSKEEP: Brakkton, thanks.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Brakkton Booker. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.