WASHINGTON – Political sparks flew Wednesday morning at the World War II memorial here in Washington, as a group of around 100 Honor Flight veterans arrived to visit the memorial, which has been shuttered as a result of the government shutdown.
On Tuesday, the first day of the shutdown, the closure drew lots of attention when a group of Honor Flight veterans from Mississippi knocked down the barricades to get inside, reportedly with the aid of several members of Congress.
More members of Congress arrived on Wednesday to welcome veterans from Missouri and Chicago, and, in the words of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, to make sure they got into the memorial.
The Daily Caller also spotted Michigan Reps. Kerry Bentivolio and Bill Huizenga, and Texas Reps. John Carter, Randy Neugebauer, and Louie Gohmert. Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and Republican Sen. Roy Blunt were there representing the Missouri delegation, along with Missouri Republican Reps. Vicky Hartzler and Ann Wagner. Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk was there, along with Democratic Rep. Bill Foster.
On Wednesday, there was no need to knock down the barricades: The handful of Parks Service officers on hand allowed the Honor Flight veterans to enter as part of a First Amendment activity.
Several of the House members, those not from states where veterans were coming, formed a receiving line for the veterans entering the memorial, shaking their hands and greeting them.
At one point, that greeting line apparently caused a hold up in getting veterans into the memorial.
“Tell them to get out of the way,” McCaskill told an aide.
“The tea party,” she said, was blocking the way from getting in.
Asked who specifically she was referring to, McCaskill said: “The ones that don’t have members here from their states, that are here trying to play politics. Yeah, those.”
“Politics on veterans are bad manners,” she said.
Wagner, also there to meet Missouri veterans, said she hoped that after Tuesday’s fanfare it had not become a political thing.
“I hope not. I didn’t come yesterday. I come when the members from my state are here, and we certainly have them from all over the state … shouldn’t be a political thing here,” she said. “You should come to honor those that are your constituents.”
But, she said, “we welcome one and all and it’s a wonderful thing that they’ve opened up the park to allow our veterans” to enter. She said she hoped that perhaps the attention would lead to the passage of legislation to reopen veterans affairs and the national parks service — legislation that failed to pass the House Tuesday evening.
Tuesday’s showdown certainly drew the attention of members of Congress, said Sarah Makin, who helps organize Honor Flight tours on a volunteer basis. Makin, who used to work for the Republican Study Committee, said she regularly emails members of Congress, mostly Republicans, when veterans from their states or districts are coming to see the memorial, but that after veterans were blocked from entrance on Tuesday, she had started getting a much bigger response.
Makin said she was suddenly getting calls about Honor Flights not from staffers, but from members of Congress themselves, and schedulers who usually ignored her emails had become very responsive.
Looking at the memorial, you would have been hard pressed to tell that it was legally closed. After all the veterans had entered, the Park Police replaced the barrier. An organizer of the Honor Flight tours stood by the barrier to ensure that anyone with the group could get in.
But, cautioned National Mall and Memorial Parks spokeswoman Carol Johnson, “the memorial is still legally closed and will be closed after the honor flight tours.”
One member of Congress did not take kindly to that fact. After the barriers went back up, Rep. Neugebauer stood in front of it and dressed down Karen Cucurullo, another Parks Police officer within hearing of reporters who held up their tape recorders to record the conversation.
“Who gave you the orders to come over and here and close the thing?” Neugebauer asked.
“The director of the park service,” Cucurullo replied tentatively.
“What service are you providing here other than denying people access to the memorial?” Neugebauer said.
“This is a First Amendment demonstration, they’re allowed to come in,” she replied. What defines that loophole is unclear, but is likely related to demonstrations or protests.
“Well don’t these people have a First Amendment right as well? This belongs to them. They should be able to come in here and see this memorial. Some of these people have traveled a long distance to come and see this, this belongs to them, and they’re trying to figure out why the administration is denying them access to that. I’m trying to find out why the administration is denying them access to that,” he said.
“I think you should open this gate and let these people in,” he added.
“I’m sorry sir, I’m not allowed. A First Amendment demonstration, absolutely we’re gonna allow them,” Cucurullo said.
“Well do you want me to tell these people they need to organize a demonstration so that you will allow them in?” Neugebauer said.
“I’m sorry, I work for the Parks Service as someone who works for this site,” Cucurullo said.
“How do you think these people who have traveled with their family, and how do you look at them and say how do you, you’re gonna deny them access?” he said.
“It’s difficult,” she said.
“It should be difficult,” the congressman shot back.
“Well it is difficult, I’m sorry sir,” she replied.
“The park service should be ashamed of themselves,” he said.
“I’m not ashamed,” she replied.
“Well you should be,” he said, ending the conversation.
After the exchange, Rep. Foster, a Democrat, walked over to thank Cucurullo for her actions.
Johnson, the National Mall and Memorial Parks spokeswoman, acknowledged that this was not a great day to be an employee of the National Parks Service. Johnson said she had been kept on to deal with the surge in attention to the memorial and the tours, but after that, the government shutdown meant she would head home without pay.
“I’m gonna get furloughed in a couple hours,” she told reporters. “It’s just because of this they kept me on.”