WASHINGTON — Groups of Iowa and Nebraska veterans will continue flying to the nation's capital to visit the memorials to their service — whether or not the government is open for business, according to organizers of those trips.
“There is no way we would cancel,” said Bill Williams of Omaha, who is coordinating back-to-back trips at the end of the month for Korean War veterans from Nebraska and Iowa.
And what will they do if the memorials are barricaded?
“Move the barricades,” Williams said.
Access to the memorials has become a highly symbolic battleground in the partisan fight over the government shutdown.
The National Park Service now says it has made provisions to allow veterans groups into the World War II 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.”
The National Park Service has put a “closed” sign over its many sites across the country. That includes memorials on the National Mall, some of which are now surrounded by fences and yellow police tape.
When groups of visiting veterans from Iowa and Mississippi arrived at the World War II Memorial on Tuesday, they simply pushed past the obstacles, accompanied by members of Congress.
A similar scene played out Wednesday with other visiting veterans.
The agency is following regulations for the National Mall, Johnson said.
“The National Park Service depends on congressional appropriations to stay open,” Johnson 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.”
A group of veterans from eastern Iowa is set to visit memorials today.
Bob Morrison is coordinating the trip for 92 World War II and Korea veterans. They're planning to visit several military service memorials, including the one for World War II. Morrison said he's been working on getting members of Congress to meet the group to ensure access to the memorials.
There is no question how they will respond if confronted with barricades, he said.
“We're going to go through them,” Morrison said. “These guys didn't have any problem hitting the beaches in Europe. I don't think they'll have a problem hitting the memorial in Washington.”
He said the Senate needs to sit down and negotiate with the House, but he also said he blames both sides in the debate for creating such a mess.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, was at the WWII Memorial on Tuesday and helped distract a guard while the vets entered the site. Wednesday, he reiterated his criticism of the Obama administration for devoting government resources to closing down open-air monuments.
“It is bizarre and it is spiteful,” King said.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has criticized King, saying he's exploiting the situation politically.
Harkin also was at the memorial on Tuesday and called the White House chief of staff after seeing the barricades in an attempt to ensure the veterans would be allowed to enter the memorial.
King noted that Harkin returned to Capitol Hill for a meeting before the Iowans arrived and the veterans pushed through the barricades.
“I don't think anybody doubts what my motives are,” King said. “We're going to do the right thing for our veterans. Sometimes you have to open a gate rather than call a bureaucrat.”
What is clear is the potential potency of the dispute.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus went to the WWII Memorial on Wednesday to criticize the Obama administration for its handling of the situation. He said the party committee was willing to pay to keep five guards on duty to keep the memorial open.
The Democratic National Committee quickly responded by calling on Republicans to back a “clean” funding resolution without other policy considerations such as changes to the health care law. It said that would be the fastest way to resolve the situation.
The National Park Service turned down the RNC offer.
Nationally, the agency has received offers from states, localities and businesses to pay for or provide support to reopen parks during the shutdown, said a spokeswoman, Jennifer Mummart.
“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.”
This report contains material from the Associated Press.