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Shutting The Government Down Over A Border Wall Isn't Fair, Cole Says

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Congress is heading to the end of its lame-duck session with some serious business left unfinished. President Trump wants $5 billion for a border wall, and he says he is prepared to shut parts of the government down if necessary if he doesn't get it. He's blaming Democrats for standing in the way.

Democrats don't want him to have all of that money, but they say Republicans still control the Congress, and they should get a deal done or face the consequences if they don't. Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama commented on this dilemma yesterday.

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RICHARD SHELBY: We got a few days left. We got nine more days, more or less. And I'm hopeful. My goal always is to fund the government, not shut the government down.

GREENE: OK, Republican Senator Richard Shelby there. Let's turn now to a fellow Republican of his, Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who joins us from his office on Capitol Hill. Congressman, welcome back.

TOM COLE: Hey, David. Great to be with you.

GREENE: So you serve on three committees that really play a role here - appropriations, budget, rules. You know how money gets spent on Capitol Hill. Can you see a spending bill with $5 billion for a border wall passing the House as it stands today?

COLE: Yes. That's not the problem. We can get that done. We can't get it through the Senate, however. It takes 60 votes over there. And the Democrats appear to be locked up. And, of course, the President has to sign anything that we pass. So we can get our part of this done, but I'm not sure it could get done on the other side of the rotunda.

GREENE: You like the idea of the House holding things up until there's some sort of negotiation that suggests that you might get a positive outcome in the Senate?

COLE: Well, I don't - I don't like the idea of not funding the government. Look, I agree with what the president's trying to accomplish. This isn't, frankly, in the great scheme of things, this is over a $40 billion bill. The difference between the two sides is about $3 1/2 billion, and there's also another $200 billion-plus worth of spending that has not yet been finalized that's tied up in all this.

So it's not an unbridgeable gap, but I think the politics and the personalities have gotten in the way of what should be a relatively easy issue to resolve.

GREENE: You're saying politics and personalities. I want to ask you if when you say personality, you're talking about President Trump, who I think...

COLE: I'm talking about, frankly, everybody involved. This is at the highest level because Speaker Pelosi, or soon-to-be speaker - Leader Pelosi is responding to her caucus. I think the president's responding to his base. I think Senator Schumer, who actually holds the key in this because he controls whether or not we can get from 51 to 60, is trying to be supportive of his colleague, Ms. Pelosi. So nobody seems to be thinking about, how do you split the difference here - because it's pretty easy.

We're talking, again - you know, this isn't a question of wall or no wall, the way it's been framed. Everybody believes some physical barriers are appropriate. The amount of money we're talking about wouldn't build a wall. Why don't you just sit down and pick the areas where, you know, you, in common, agree a physical barrier here makes sense? And that - we haven't gotten down to that granular level.

If you leave it to the appropriators, they'll actually do it that way and get it settled. But I think right now, this is much more about politics than substance.

GREENE: So what has to change? I mean, a lot of Americans are watching this probably thinking to themselves - they're hearing both parties say, we're not talking about the Great Wall of China here, both parties saying, you know, you're committed to some kind of border security. Do you blame Americans watching this and saying, what in the world is going on? Isn't this your job to bridge these differences and fund the government?

COLE: Couldn't agree with that more. You know, and we've actually done a better job this year of funding the government. Seventy-five percent of it was done on time back in September. That's the best record in 22 years. So to stumble here at the end over a relatively small amount of money, again, that tells me this is a lot more about political posturing than it is about getting to a solution.

And, again, I favor what the president's trying to do. But there's a way to do this, in my opinion, that both sides can say, hey, we, quote, unquote, "won." And that's partly what this is about, I'm afraid. And that's sad because, again, these are important agencies of government. They deserve, you know, funding. And they deserve a predictable stream of funding from now to the end of the fiscal year.

GREENE: How would your constituents be affected if this partial shutdown were to happen over this?

COLE: Frankly, not a great deal in the short term because most of government, particularly the military and, again, the major domestic agencies are funded. But over time, we're talking about the Department of Homeland Security. So those people will continue to work. They'll do their job, but they won't get paid.

GREENE: You seem to be suggesting that Senator Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, the onus is on him. I mean, a lot of people could point to this and say...

COLE: No. I think the onus is on all of them, to be...

GREENE: But what about President Trump? I mean, he said he'd be proud to shut down the government over this. Was that a mistake to use that term?

COLE: I would not have used that term. I'm never proud to shut down the government. I don't think it works very well. And it's not fair to the American people or the people you're asking to do tough jobs.

GREENE: Tom Cole is a Republican congressman from the state of Oklahoma, a frequent guest on our program. Congressman, we appreciate you, as always.

COLE: Hey, David, thank you.

GREENE: I want to bring in NPR's politics editor Domenico Montanaro to talk about this more. Good morning, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So as you listen to Tom Cole talk about this moment and these negotiations, what stands out to you?

MONTANARO: Well, I'm struck when he says it's not a question of wall or no wall. I mean, I understand what he's saying, that he says that, you know, everyone thinks a physical barrier is important in spots, so pick those areas that make sense. But this is a question of wall or no wall. It's become kind of a moral standing issue with the president feeling like his base and something that he's promised and hasn't been able to finish off - that he believes that it's important to national security to have a wall. And it's important to Democrats to say that a wall is not necessary.

Now, Congressman Cole is right that in past legislation, for example, Democrats and Republicans have picked places to have strong border security elements - technology, fencing, fixing fencing and things like that. But, you know, that was when we had comprehensive immigration overhauls that could pass the Senate and weren't able to pass the House. We're a long, long ways from being able to have the two sides come together on something like that.

GREENE: Yeah. Wasn't there a time when, even when there were politics at play, I mean, there would be members of both parties who would sort of emerge and try and tone things down and say, we've got to come to some kind of solution here, and you'd have a deal emerge? I mean, is that just not the case anymore?

MONTANARO: No, I think that there are leaders in the Senate and in the House who would prefer not to shut the government down. I think that you have people in charge now who are willing to do that. But they're not quite sure, a lot of times, who they're dealing with in the White House. Like Congressman Cole said, he said he wouldn't have said he'd be proud to shut the government down. The president did that in a moment of pique. And that's not usually the way you want to legislate.

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer had a goal of going in there and looking like they could stand up to the president and that they weren't going to give in on their moral values. Now, again, Nancy Pelosi has said, every day is a new day. She'll wake up and, you know, if there's a way to compromise, then she'll do that. Democrats certainly don't want the government to shut down. But now that the president has taken blame for it, you know, I'm not sure that they're going to be any more likely to compromise.

GREENE: And we just have a couple seconds left. We should mention Nancy Pelosi waking up this morning looking more likely that she will be speaker of the House again. But she had to make a deal with some of the younger rebels in her party.

MONTANARO: She did. She made a deal with some of the people in her party who didn't want to vote for her, said that she would limit her term to a maximum four years and then be sort of a bridge and a mentor to some of those in the younger generation to have a new face of leadership going forward.

GREENE: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thanks a lot.

MONTANARO: You're so welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.