STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is hoping to avoid another partial government shutdown. During a shutdown that lasted more than a month, the Senate majority leader supported and protected President Trump, refusing to consider any bill his fellow Republican did not approve in advance and yielding only at the end, when he said other Republicans were rebelling. But Politico reports McConnell hates shutdowns and doesn't want to do it again.
He reportedly told members of a conference committee, you were supposed to find a deal on border security. We're praying for you. Get this done. One member of that committee, Republican Representative Chuck Fleischmann, tells us he is optimistic.
CHUCK FLEISCHMANN: We know where the administration is. And we know where pretty much most of the folks in the Senate are. We have a track record of what has not worked. So now perhaps we can focus on what will work.
INSKEEP: OK. What is that? Democrats and, privately, many Republicans have scorned the president's insistence on building a border wall. Yesterday, the president said the committee is wasting its time unless they're discussing that wall. So was it a waste of time? Representative Pete Aguilar, Democrat of California, is on the committee and on the line. Congressman, good morning.
PETE AGUILAR: Good to be with you, Steve.
INSKEEP: Is your committee any closer to a deal than it seemed a few days ago?
AGUILAR: Well, I like the tone and the tenor of where the conferees were yesterday. And I think, obviously, if left to our own devices, appropriators would welcome that dialogue and discussion and negotiation and try to find a solution here.
INSKEEP: It does seem to me as an outsider that this is not a debate about very much if it were not for the symbolic importance that everybody's putting on border wall, right? Because the president has admitted he can't get a border wall all the way across. I assume you guys wouldn't mind a couple of miles of border wall. Is there a solution somewhere in the middle?
AGUILAR: Well, there's 654 miles of existing border wall. So I think we need to understand the scope of what we're talking about here. We have physical barriers. If the Republican administration doesn't feel that those work, we're happy to talk about added technology and other force multipliers that will help us solve this issue. But what we're not interested in is, you know, doing this just so the president can fulfill a campaign promise.
INSKEEP: Or not, I guess, since he said Mexico would pay for the wall. But I'm curious. Are Democrats still in the position that this is basically a racist symbol - we will not accept one inch of border wall? Or are Democrats now in a position where they would accept some?
AGUILAR: Well, Homeland Security has billions of dollars that they still haven't spent on replacement of that existing barrier. So I think what we'd like to see is for them to carry out what Congress has asked them to do in prior budget years before we start talking about additional infrastructure and barriers. So - but we're happy to have, you know, conversations with our colleagues. But I think it's important to note that we want just smart and effective border security. We don't just want symbols. We want smart and effective border security.
INSKEEP: What are Republicans saying when you are telling them, why don't we just get Homeland Security to fix or improve the existing walls first?
AGUILAR: Well, I think they acknowledge that. They acknowledge that there are billions of dollars that have not been spent by Homeland Security. But I think that they're boxed in a corner because the president has clearly said that he wants more. And I think many of our colleagues are wrestling with that.
INSKEEP: Well - oh, so then the question becomes, what is a formula under which you can walk out of the room, and everybody can really say they won or really got something good for the country, or at least they can pretend they won?
AGUILAR: Well, I think what we're more concerned about rather than who gets to claim credit is what's effective. And we want smart and effective border security. Right now, there's 1 percent of vehicles at the southern border - personal vehicles - are scanned. Seventeen percent of commercial vehicles are scanned. You know, if we really want to get serious about human trafficking, about drugs coming across our borders, those are things that we can invest in and add technology to help solve that problem.
INSKEEP: I think you're telling me that technology at legal border crossings is way more important than walls in places where you're not supposed to cross. Totally get that. Sounds like you've probably got a lot of Republican colleagues who would agree that much. But what is a formula under which you can go in that direction and still come up with something the president would sign?
AGUILAR: Well, you know, our job is to legislate. And we are a coequal branch of government. So our job is to negotiate this deal, find a compromise and put something on the president's desk.
INSKEEP: Can you describe it at all, what that compromise is?
AGUILAR: We're going to lay out our principles. We have - Lucille Roybal-Allard, our chair, has laid out those principles. Increased technology, filling vacancies within the department, those are things that we're concerned about - not barriers, but additional technology and true border security that's effective.
INSKEEP: You know, Congressman, I don't think I hear you yielding at all.
AGUILAR: Well, (laughter) you know, what I'm saying is there's plenty of dollars that Homeland Security hasn't spent. You know, let's have a conversation with them on how we fix this issue. I'm happy to do that. They don't have the greatest track record of being truthful all the time. But I'm happy to listen to outside voices and experts on what we need to do to secure our southern border. And then our job is to legislate and to put something across the president's desk.
INSKEEP: OK. Congressman Pete Aguilar, Democrat of California, appreciate the update.
AGUILAR: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: And NPR's Domenico Montanaro, our lead political editor, has been listening along with this. Domenico, good morning.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What do you hear there?
MONTANARO: It sounds like we've - we pretty much are where we've been. You know, you have Democrats who are essentially unyielding on a border wall or fence and, you know, Republicans who at least want to be able to try to give President Trump something that he can say is a win. Now, I wouldn't say that Aguilar sounds like he's completely shut-off to the idea of potential border fencing or fixes.
MONTANARO: I think he just wants the focus and priority to be on what he talks about being technology and the fact that a small percentage of cars and vehicles, commercial vehicles in particular, that come across the border are actually scanned for drugs and contraband.
INSKEEP: Yeah. You know, the more I think about it, the more I think I even hear something else. It sounds like the Democrats are saying, this has to be based on facts. This has to be based on need. Prove it, Republicans, that the wall is needed because first you got to spend money on fixing walls that you've already got appropriated. You've got all these other technological things you can prove are needed. Prove that the wall is in that mix somewhere.
MONTANARO: Yeah. The problem with that is that we've got about two weeks until the government would shut down again. You know, this is right after Valentine's Day on the 15 when the government would shut back down. We have the president going to deliver the State of the Union Address on Tuesday. And certainly it looks like this is going to be another political, you know, hot potato that the president's going to try to use to try to pummel Democrats with. And this is going to be the focus of the State of the Union because there doesn't sound like there's going to be a deal before that.
INSKEEP: Domenico, thanks for the reminder that Valentine's Day's coming up.
MONTANARO: (Laughter) Well, happy Valentine's Day, Steve.
INSKEEP: That is NPR's Domenico Montanaro.