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Clock Ticks Down Toward A Midnight Government Shutdown


The House of Representatives has done its part, passing another short-term spending bill that would avert a government shutdown. That deadline for that shutdown is tonight. The Senate will vote today, but the outcome on that side is a whole less certain. Democrats and Republicans are at odds, and in fact, Republicans are having trouble finding unity. Immigration policy and the Children's Health Insurance Program known as CHIP are key sticking points. It feels like a moment when a Republican president steps in and gets his party in line, but Democrats and some Republicans are saying President Trump is part of the problem.

Our next guest is right in the middle of this story. Marc Short is White House director of legislative affairs, the president's point person with Congress, and he joins us on the line. Marc, thanks for being back on the show.

MARC SHORT: Rachel, thanks for having me again.

MARTIN: Donald Trump campaigned on being the ultimate dealmaker. Why can't he seal this deal?

SHORT: Well, Rachel, look at what happened yesterday. The president reached out to the Freedom Caucus and secured the votes necessary. So the vote yesterday was 230, and most of those Republican. Your opening talked about a sense that there's a division inside the Republican Party. The reality is there's maybe three or four senators on the Republican side who are reluctant for a CR, but everyone else...

MARTIN: Yeah, but they're big senators. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the other day earlier this week that he doesn't even understand what the White House wants, what President Trump wants to do on immigration and spending. Let's listen to this clip.


MITCH MCCONNELL: I'm looking for something that President Trump supports, and he's not yet indicated what measure he's willing to sign.

MARTIN: Can you clarify exactly what it is the president wants?

SHORT: I think actually Leader McConnell clarified his remarks the next day on the Senate floor and said that the White House has been clear on this. We, in fact, have had Senator McConnell's staff in every conversation every day about what we want to do on immigration. So I think there is confusion over his remarks. The reality is Republicans are united in keeping the government open. Democrats are united in trying to shut it down.

MARTIN: Democrats say that this is actually on Republicans. I mean, after all, Republicans control the executive branch in the White House. Republicans control the Senate. Republicans control Congress. So if there's a government shutdown, why wouldn't it be on Republicans?

SHORT: Well, Rachel, you know better than that. The reality is, yes, Republicans have a majority in the House, the Senate and the White House. But we need 60 votes in the United States Senate to get anything passed. So we look at the United States Senate right now. They have the ability to shut this down. Chuck Schumer in 2013 said no matter how strongly someone feels about an issue, you shouldn't hold millions of people hostage by shutting down the government. It's exactly what he and his colleagues are going to do today.

MARTIN: Although last May, it was the president himself who said this country needs a good shutdown. And the president has been accused of confusing things. I mean, hours after the Republican congressional leaders came up with this stopgap bill to fund the government, the president tweeted that the Children's Health Insurance Program should not be part of this. So why did he undercut his own party?

SHORT: The president was looking to have CHIP on a separate legislative vehicle. He's not opposed to the actual legislation. He conveyed his support for the bill yesterday throughout the day in conversations with Speaker Ryan, Leader McCarthy, again, members of the House Freedom Caucus. It's why they ended up having 230 votes in favor of the bill because of the president's support in it (ph).

MARTIN: But if Republicans and if the president really wanted CHIP funding, why wouldn't they just support a clean bill on CHIP funding today instead of attaching it to the spending measure?

SHORT: We're the ones putting forward the CHIP legislation. We're reauthorizing it for six years. Why would people have opposition to that program?

MARTIN: Democrats say that this is - to use a phrase that is now tired - kicking the can down the road, that governing by short-term continuing resolution is no way to govern.

SHORT: A hundred percent agree. In February, we submitted our budget to the United States Congress. The appropriations process is supposed to be completed in the end of September. Here we are in mid-January with four continual CR's. It is no way to govern. It's incredibly dysfunctional. And it actually hurts our military. Secretary Mattis will tell you the continued push for continuing resolutions means that he is basically reinvesting in faltering equipment as opposed to investing in new equipment. That hurts our military. It hurts our troops. It's no way to run the government. But, Rachel...

MARTIN: Right. So that's what Democrats are saying, that...

SHORT: Because, Rachel, here's the reality. We need 60 votes in the United States Senate to take up the appropriations bill. We have 51 Republicans, of which one or two are physically unable to be here. Therefore we need 10 or 11 Senate Democrats just to move to the bill, and they have not let us move to any other (ph) appropriations bills.

MARTIN: Well, now is the time when Democrats feel like they have leverage. Is it not a time for Republicans to compromise then?

SHORT: Rachel, we have been compromising. The reality is that we - as we continue the negotiations on DACA, we don't feel it's appropriate to shut down the government over illegal immigration.

MARTIN: Where has the compromise been? Where has the compromise been? What have Republicans given in this?

SHORT: What we have given - on immigration in particular, there are several things that we've taken off the table in the conversation. The Democrats are the ones who have said we want to shut down the government until you solve the DACA issue. We've come forward with a proposal. We came forward with our priorities. We sent it to Congress back in October. We've continued to talk to them. The reality is where are the Democrats giving?

MARTIN: If what the Democrats want in this moment is an even shorter term chance to keep negotiating over the weekend, will the president support that idea? Would he sign that?

SHORT: We've been negotiating each and every day. I don't understand. If they're essentially saying, no, we won't do 30 days, but maybe we'll do five days, then the reality they're saying is they don't really want to shut down the government. So let's just keep it open, allow us to continue our negotiations. I think we're making progress on DACA, but I think it's unrealistic to think there's going to be a solution in the next five days.

MARTIN: Marc Short is the White House director of legislative affairs and assistant to the president. Thanks for your time, Marc.

SHORT: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I'm joined in studio by NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis, who was listening to our conversation. Sue, what struck you about what Marc Short said? He said there has been a lot of compromise by the White House and Republicans.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: I still think there is a great amount of confusion on Capitol Hill among Republicans and Democrats alike in what President Trump wants in an immigration bill and will sign.

MARTIN: Because he changed his mind.

DAVIS: He changed his mind - he has rejected one bipartisan offer that was put before him. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did make clear this week that Republicans are still trying to figure out where the president is precisely and what his negotiating position is. And I think they're further away from a deal than Mr. Short might suggest. Republicans that we talked to, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, who is leading fresh negotiations, said he did not think it was possible to get a deal on immigration by the midnight deadline tonight or even over the weekend. I'm not sure what a bill looks like that people like Dick Durbin, the Senate minority whip from Illinois, can sign that people like White House aide Steve Miller and Chief of Staff John Kelly can tell President Trump is a good idea to sign.

MARTIN: Well, the votes, they are coming this day and night. We will watch. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.