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Sen. Rob Portman On How Government Shutdowns Can Be Eliminated


News at the U.S.-Mexico border underlines the stakes of border security. Authorities say they made the largest seizure in U.S. history of a shipment of fentanyl. That's an opioid blamed for many overdose deaths. But the drugs were found in a truck crossing at a legal port of entry. That's how most drugs are said to cross the border, meaning President Trump's proposed border wall would not have stopped this shipment from coming in. This case illustrates the conflict over border security. Republican and Democratic lawmakers say they can agree on measures like better technology at ports of entry. It is not clear they can satisfy the president's demand to pay for a wall that he once promised Mexico would pay for. The president is hinting that if Congress doesn't give him money for the wall, he will declare a state of emergency and take it. So what can lawmakers do? I asked Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio.

Do you absolutely need President Trump to support a compromise, or can you secure a veto-proof majority that would make that unnecessary in case he changes his mind?

ROB PORTMAN: Well, as you know, what the White House is saying is that they're likely to invoke a national emergency power to be able to provide funding for their preferred approach to the border security issues rather than going into a shutdown. So I think that's probably more likely now. And there are three issues that have come up. One is, would the courts enjoin such a invocation of presidential power? In other words, would there be a lawsuit and be an injunction? And therefore, the money wouldn't actually go to the border, but it'd be tied up in the courts. I think that's likely from what I know of the way - people who would have standing, including folks along the border, including Democrats in the House as an example.

Second, it does involve the spending coming from somewhere else. So one of the likely avenues would be military construction - you know, projects that Congress has already approved that would have to be delayed or ended because there would need to be funding taken from them. But then there's just the issue of congressional power versus presidential power. Isn't this really a role for Congress? So we'd have to go through all those things. I don't know how that comes out. But Rachel, frankly, I don't see a shutdown as likely.

MARTIN: And what I hear you saying is you'd like to avoid a national emergency declaration by the president.

PORTMAN: Yeah. I think far preferable - let's roll up our sleeves and do the work, close these gaps between us on the border, both literally and figuratively. We're not that far apart. It's just a question of what kind of structures and where they go.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, some federal workers who had been furloughed are still waiting for their back pay, pay they were denied during the shutdown. Many contractors aren't going to be paid at all. You have now introduced a bill to prevent this from happening again. You think that's really necessary.

PORTMAN: Yeah. I think shutdowns are stupid. I've felt so for a long time. As you know, this is the fifth time they've introduced my legislation, which is called End Government Shutdowns, a very creative title. It basically says that when you get to the end of an appropriations bill, you don't shut down the government, but instead, you continue the funding from the previous year. Now, some of them said, well, that's bad because you want Congress to appropriate. I agree with that totally. That's why in our legislation, after four months, there is a 1 percent across-the-board cut in all spending. And that will encourage Congress to do its work.

MARTIN: Do you think after five times of proposing the same legislation, this moment is different?

PORTMAN: I do. I mean, look; I've talked to Republicans and Democrats alike. It's really not helping anybody. And for those who are more interested in reducing the size and scope of government, that's not what happens in these. Actually, the taxpayer, in my experience, having lived through about six of these shutdowns now, end up paying more because, again, you come back after the fact and pay people, often paying people for services that were not provided. So it's a hardship for federal employees and their families. It's a hardship for a lot of small businesses that can't get paid for the government work. And it's a hardship for a lot of taxpayers who aren't getting their services.

MARTIN: Can I ask, though, Senator - you understand the raw politics, though, of this. And what do you say to Republicans, even some Democrats, who argue that passing a bill like the one you're suggesting removes important leverage in spending negotiations?

PORTMAN: Again, I've been through a few of them, and I've seen what happens, and a lot of people go into them thinking it's going to provide great leverage. I don't think it does. I don't think Chuck Schumer believes that when he got accused of having the Schumer shutdown a year or so ago, which was when he blocked a continuing resolution on behalf of a specific issue. I don't think that many Republicans see it as leverage now, having just gone through this last 35 days and seen the response and reaction from the American people and from the other parties.

MARTIN: Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, speaking to us yesterday. I want to bring in NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley.

Scott, Senator Portman wants to pass this bill to make sure government shutdowns don't happen again. But that's exactly what's going to happen if Congress doesn't come up with a deal. Has the president already made up his mind that he's going to declare a national emergency, or is this just more posturing?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: That's a very good question, Rachel. You know, he - the president gave an interview to The New York Times yesterday in which he seemed to suggest that he is leaning towards declaring a national emergency. But you have to take that with a big grain of salt because of course, the - he's been hinting at that ever since this standoff began, and he hasn't pulled the trigger yet. The White House, like Senator Portman, knows that a national emergency would invite an immediate legal challenge. There would be opposition from some members of the president's own party, both on sort of constitutional and economic grounds. So it's not entirely clear the president's going to do that.

And even talking about using a national emergency sort of undercuts the bargaining position of the Republicans on that conference committee. So it's an interesting stance for the president to be taking. You know, Senator Portman used to be a White House budget director, so he knows about the cost of shutdowns not only from a political point of view of a lawmaker, but the budget director is the guy who kind of has to manage a shutdown in the White House. And so he's certainly familiar with the cost on that end, as well.

MARTIN: Just briefly, is Portman right? Have Democrats and Republicans all along been closer than the rhetoric indicates?

HORSLEY: Sure. This is a - you know, this has been a political point for the White House that there was a deal in Congress before this shutdown ever began.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Thanks.

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