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Sen. Leahy Reacts To Trump's Threat For A Government Shutdown

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump is threatening to shut down the government if Congress doesn't fund his border wall. On Sunday, the president tweeted, quote, "I would be willing to shut down government if the Democrats do not give us the votes for border security, which includes the wall - must get rid of lottery, catch-and-release, etc. and finally go to system of immigration based on merit. We need great people coming into our country" - exclamation point and end quote.

Now, if a shutdown happened, it would happen in September, a little more than a month before the midterm elections. That could make things tough for Republican lawmakers in November. But for Democrats, it could be a different story. Senator Patrick Leahy joins us now. He's a Democrat from Vermont. Good morning, Senator.

PATRICK LEAHY: Good morning. It's good to hear you.

KING: All right. So the president has made this threat to shut down the government over border security. What position does this put the Democrats in? Does this set you up better for the midterm elections?

LEAHY: Well, it puts the Republicans in a bad position because the Republicans have the majority in the House and the Senate. They could pass the money for a wall if they wanted. And for the president to say, well, the Democrats have got to do this - the Republicans are in the majority in the House; they're in the majority in the Senate. If they want a wall, they could pass it. Many Republicans don't want to spend $25 billion to $40 billion on a wall when they don't have enough money for medical research, for cancer research, for rebuilding some of our water supplies in the United States. I suggested, only half-jokingly, that the president has said time after time that Mexico is going to pay for this; let's take him at his word. Set up a special bank account. As Mexico puts the money in, take it out for the wall. Privately, a lot of Republicans tell me they love that idea, but they just don't want to vote on the wall one way or the other.

KING: Not one way or the other. And I'm sure Mexico would not consider (laughter) that much of a joke.

LEAHY: Of course not. But we're just taking the president at his word. He said they would do it. And...

KING: Let me ask you, Senator - in a compromise earlier this year, Democrats took a stand on DREAMers, on people who were brought here as children.

LEAHY: Right.

KING: And then the shutdown ended when they agreed to some funding for the border wall. Are Democrats willing to further compromise on funding the wall, do you think?

LEAHY: Well, I think Democrats are willing to work on this, but it's hard to get the president to keep the same position for more than a day. He had talked with the Republican leadership and said he understands, was going to look at the wall after the elections. Two days later, he comes out with tweets of something entirely different. You know, the Senate, two years ago - three years ago, passed, by a 2-1 margin, a comprehensive immigration bill. The House Republican leadership refused to take it up even thought it would have passed. And - so that could be done.

But...

KING: Well...

LEAHY: ...Democrats and Republicans who've worked out deals with the president on immigration find that he changes his mind two days later. So it makes it very difficult.

KING: I wonder if there's an argument. You know, there's been a lot of handwringing, including from Democrats, but no actual plans presented from Congress for immigration reform. Does the president need to make threats in order to make Congress do something?

LEAHY: No. I mean, we did this before he was president - as I said, a 2-1 vote, Republicans and Democrats, in the Senate. The Republican leadership refused to take it up even though it would have passed because some in the Republican caucus opposed it. It's not so much a threat. The president's party controls the House and the Senate. If he really wants an immigration bill, then sit down and work out what he wants. But he can't change his mind two days after agreeing to something.

KING: Before President Trump tweeted on Sunday, Senate leaders had been working out a bipartisan deal to keep the government funded at least through the summer. Is the president's tweet going to affect any of that?

LEAHY: No, in fact..

KING: No.

LEAHY: In fact, Senator Shelby and I have tried to set an example. We have passed far more appropriations bills than had been done in well over a decade. He's the chairman. I'm the vice chairman of Appropriations. We've done it almost unanimously on each bill. And you know, in the Senate, to get a unanimous vote that the sun rises in the east would be difficult these days. But we've passed almost all our appropriations bills unanimously. We're trying to set an example. We don't put poison pills from the left or the right on them. We just want to get it done.

KING: Just briefly - how did you get to that unanimity? What does each side get in that deal?

LEAHY: Well, both Senator Shelby and I know that if the Senate's going to work, we have to do this. We've both been there - I'm the dean of the Senate. We've both been there a long time, and we want it to work. We want the Senate to actually do its work. And we've had the support of both Senator McConnell and Senator Schumer. It can be done. I think the House is not used to actually voting on real things.

KING: Senator, before I let you go, let me pivot for a moment to the Supreme Court. You've accused Senate Republicans of blocking Democratic attempts to access the records of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. These are records from his time serving under President George W. Bush. Why are these records so important, briefly?

LEAHY: Well, one of the things that just came out was a memo showing they wanted him to be involved in their torture procedures, their torture memos. I think these things, we should know. He's taken positions that the president is above the law, can't be prosecuted. We ought to have these memos.

KING: Senator Patrick Leahy is a Democrat from Vermont. Thank you, Senator.

LEAHY: Good talking with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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