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Week In Politics: The Shutdown Continues


A new year, a new Congress. With the U.S. government still partially shut down after two weeks, President Trump met with Democratic leaders on Friday and said if they don't give him every cent of the $5.6 billion he demands to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico - which he'd said so many times on the campaign trail would be paid for by Mexico - he's willing to keep the government shut down for months or years. NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Glad you're open for business, Scott.

SIMON: (Laughter) Yes, we're still here. Haven't we learned over the last couple of years when the president says something, a lot of people insist, oh, that's just hyperbole? He actually means it.

ELVING: The president is given to hyperbole. That's an understatement, or perhaps it's a euphemism. But, no, this shutdown cannot last for months or years because that would disrupt far, far more than we've seen so far - not only national parks or federal paychecks but food stamps, which 38 million Americans depend on, and the IRS. Think tax advice at this time of year and tax refunds, Scott. Tens of millions of Americans count on that tax refund check, and they will not want to wait for it for months or years.

SIMON: What do you see that might be utterly distinct about this particular shutdown, given it's almost become a way of life in the Capitol?

ELVING: There's some of the usual posturing to be sure. But it's also unlike previous shutdowns in that both sides seem to be content with the politics of a stalemate. Usually, at least one side seems highly eager to get on with the courtship. But here, we have both playing hard to get. So the longest shutdown was three weeks back in the mid-1990s during the Clinton administration, the speakership of Newt Gingrich. By next weekend, we may have broken that record.

SIMON: Let's talk about the new Congress. Nancy Pelosi - once again speaker. But the difference in appearance between the two sides in that chamber is dramatic.

ELVING: As different as blue and red. If you watched the ceremony on Thursday, on the Republican side, it looked like a chamber of commerce meeting with nearly 90 percent of them white males, all suits and ties. On the other side, it looked, by contrast, more like the United Nations General Assembly with record numbers of women, people of color, clothing of color, Muslims, Native Americans and LGBTQ members, as well.

SIMON: Nancy Pelosi has demonstrated in the last few weeks especially that she is an able political opponent for President Trump. Does she also have to contend with some rival opinions in her own party?

ELVING: Oh, indeed she does - the young and the restless, the newly elected Democrats. There are more of them than at any time in more than four decades. And they have a far more confrontational style, many of them - and a greater fondness for socialist or left-wing economics and rough-edged rhetoric, as we've seen. So Pelosi, on the other hand, has ridden this wave so far with remarkable cool and calm and balance. And she shows every sign of dealing with it in the months ahead.

SIMON: New senator from Utah, a guy named Mitt Romney. And he began by writing a scathing piece for The Washington Post, saying, quote, "the president has not risen to the mantle of the office." Do you see any indication Mitt Romney will try to provide an alternative leadership for Republicans?

ELVING: Yes. It's hard to believe Mitt Romney got back into politics just to be a freshman senator from Utah. He sees himself as a national figure, obviously, an alternative standard bearer, perhaps even an antidote to the president, not that he will necessarily run against him for the nomination in 2020. But, surely, he would be a candidate if Trump is not. And the Senate has lost a lot of its leading critics of Trump on the Republican side. John McCain died. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake retired. Lindsey Graham has switched sides so many times, no one knows whether he's a supporter or a critic. So Romney sees a lane to run in, and he's already running in it and running hard.

SIMON: And let's note blockbuster jobs report yesterday.

ELVING: Absolutely blew the doors off. And it was great news for the economy, great news for the president, great news for his party. And we will see in the months ahead - with this 300,000-job surge, we will see whether or not tariffs and changes in interest rates and other changes should actually damper this enthusiasm or whether this long bull run still has some distance to run.

SIMON: Ron Elving, thanks so much for being with us.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.