WASHINGTON -- A half-dozen members of Congress clamored in front of cameras to push aside a barricade at the World War II Memorial, where nearly 200 veterans were waiting to enter Wednesday.
The veterans – most of them from Kansas City, many wearing medals won in battle and some in wheelchairs – shook hands and thanked the representatives for ensuring they could see the memorial despite the partial government shutdown. But some also pointedly questioned how Congress could let this happen.
“It’s crazy seeing those people out there wanting to come in and not being able to come in,” said Ted Gault, from Kansas City, Mo., who served in the Air Force during World War II. “And then you meet the senators or representatives who are out here and they’re the ones who are causing the damn problem to start with.”
It was Gault’s first time seeing the memorial built to honor him and other WWII veterans. The 89-year-old and his son strolled through the granite plaza and reflected at the memorial’s fountain, which has been turned off.
The memorial was among the 401 national parks closed because of the partial government shutdown, which began Tuesday. House Republicans have insisted on repeal or delay of the 2010 health care law in return for passing a bill to fund the government. Republicans proposed to appropriate money to reopen the parks and some other popular government offices and services but Democrats refused to agree.
The controversy over access to parks has sparked a backlash, prompting the White House to weigh in and calls for an investigation.
The House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday launched a probe into why the memorials were barricaded. Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., sent a letter to National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis criticizing the Obama administration’s restrictions to the memorials.
"Park Service’s decision to barricade the open-air memorials from veterans and other Americans flies in the face of common sense, given their interest in visiting memorials that honor their service and sacrifice to the country," wrote Hastings and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation.
Spokesman Jay Carney defended the White House against accusations that the administration was denying veterans access. Carney said the Department of Interior is making accommodations, likely on First Amendment grounds, to allow future veterans groups to have access to the memorials. He also said Republicans knew the consequences when they approved their budget.
At least two other sets of demonstrators marched and chanted around the memorial on Wednesday. A former Marine held a large sign that read: “Mr. President/Congress: Tear down this wall,” an allusion to President Ronald Reagan’s famous Cold War-era remark to Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev. An earlier Honor Flight group was escorted past the barricades on Tuesday, the first day of the shutdown.
Honor Flights is scheduled to bring some 3,500 veterans to the capital this month to visit memorials, according to the Honor Flight Network, which is funded by donations.
Concerns have grown that an extended shutdown could lead to greater outcry 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.