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We Need To Work Together To Reopen Government, Rep. Suozzi Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have on the line a Democratic member of Congress who met with President Trump. The president has not been meeting the last few days with Democratic leaders. He did sign legislation assuring federal workers of their back pay whenever the shutdown ends. And he met with a small group of less-senior Democrats from an organization that calls itself the Problem Solvers Caucus.

Congressman Tom Suozzi of New York is one of them. He represents part of New York City and suburban Long Island. Congressman, good morning.

TOM SUOZZI: Hey. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What was the meeting like?

SUOZZI: You know, it was a, you know, a heady thing. Whenever you go to meet with the president, you go into the White House. And we went, actually, in the Situation Room. We wanted to make sure there was no press there, quite frankly.

INSKEEP: OK.

SUOZZI: And, you know, I'm part of a group - I'm the vice chairman of a group called the Problem Solvers Caucus. It's 24 Democrats, 24 Republicans trying to find common ground to solve problems, which there's not enough of that going on in the country right now.

So there were seven Democrats and six Republicans, and the president and vice president were there. And, you know, he listened to us. We listened to him. And we're trying to push things forward.

INSKEEP: Well, there was a previous effort to invite over Democrats, and nobody came to that one because it was seen as an effort to just peel off Democratic votes by the president. Was the president trying to peel you off?

SUOZZI: We made it very clear from the get-go that we're not going to be peeled off, that, you know, we support the leadership. The Republicans support their leadership. And, you know, we believe that we just have to start talking to each other and working together, that we need to - we emphasized, as has the Democratic leadership, we need to reopen the government. There's too many people suffering that it just doesn't make any sense to keep the government closed like this.

And, I mean, you just mentioned in your report that they signed legislation yesterday that they're going to pay all the federal officials - all the federal employees when they come back. I mean, the president's a businessman. You're paying everybody anyway, let's bring them back to work.

INSKEEP: Oh, because they're getting - they're going to get paid for doing nothing these number of weeks now.

SUOZZI: Right.

INSKEEP: But let's talk about how this would go because you're saying the Democratic position is open the government now, we'll talk about the wall later. We'll talk about border funding later. I suppose the situation from the president's point of view is he needs to save face. Are you willing to offer him anything to save face?

SUOZZI: You know, I think it's a matter of building relationships and building trust, that people recognize that if we can get the government open, we can find a common-ground way forward. You know, I'm not representing the Problem Solvers or the Democrats. You know, I'm not in a position to be a negotiator or anything like that.

But I've said in my own district, and this is Tom Suozzi speaking, not representing anybody else, you know, let's - we can do border security. We can have more physical structures, but let's also do the radar, and let's do the personnel, and let's fix the ports of entry. Let's do all these different things. And let's finally resolve some of these problems regarding the DREAMers and regarding temporary protected status.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about that, Congressman. You just said, we can have physical structures. You're saying, in effect, well, OK, Mr. President, there's already some walls and a lot of fence on the border. We can have some more wall. We can have some more fence - that's fine.

But your speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has said the wall is an immorality because of what it is, because of the symbol that the president has made it. How do you find common ground when your party's position is that the wall is an immorality?

SUOZZI: I think that the language that both sides are using - the language the president uses that makes it as simplistic as the wall, the wall, the wall as some sort of simple solution, and the language of immorality makes it difficult. That's one of the reasons we're in this difficult situation is the language people are using.

But that's why you need to have meetings like this and people talking to each other and trying to build a sense of common ground. Now, is it easy to do? No, it's very difficult. It's very hard to do in the context of this massive vortex of press and point and counterpoint. But, you know, that's what your job is when you're supposed to be someone governing. You're supposed to try and find this common ground to get things done.

INSKEEP: Congressman, as you may have heard, there's a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll out which finds the president's approval rating has slipped even further down. And something like 57 percent of voters surveyed say they definitely will not vote for him for president in 2020. Do you assume - is it your working assumption that the longer this shutout - shutdown goes, the worse it is for the president - that he's weaker every day?

SUOZZI: I think it's worse for the president. I think it's worse for the country. And I think it's worse for the Congress as well. Everybody's sick and tired of people just fighting with each other. They want us to get something done. This shutdown is bad for human beings' lives that are not getting paid. It's bad for everybody.

INSKEEP: Bad for the Democrats as well?

SUOZZI: It's bad for the institution of Congress. It's bad for Democrats. It's bad for Republicans. It's bad for America.

INSKEEP: Congressman, thanks for the time. Really appreciate it.

SUOZZI: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: That's Congressman Tom Suozzi, Democrat of New York state.

NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro has been listening along with us, and he's on the line. Domenico, good morning.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do you hear there?

MONTANARO: You know, there's a few things. One, he's saying we have to reopen the government. Even - this is the part of that Problem Solvers Caucus. They're there to try to talk to the president, unlike the Democratic leadership right now, which is saying, come to our side, come to our position. And even these people, you know, somewhat more in the middle are saying, look; first thing is reopen the government - no conversations about the wall or any physical barriers beyond that to start with. So that's the threshold for a lot of even middle-of-the-road Democrats.

He is, however, saying that more physical structures, as you pointed out, is something that can be talked about and is something that Democrats in the past have voted for. But you kind of hear the contours of a deal that emerge there, which is something we've been talking about for a while, which is physical structures for some kind of legislation when it comes to DREAMers, those kids brought to the United States illegally as children, now some of them - many of them adults.

And this language of immorality that Democratic leadership has used and Nancy Pelosi has used - that might be a step too far for some moderate Democrats.

INSKEEP: For some moderate Democrats. But the key here, I suppose, is, is the president willing to make a tactical surrender, or are Republicans, who control the Senate, willing to push back on the president?

MONTANARO: Right. And I think that's the key thing here is whether or not Senate Republicans will intervene in a way to try to get the president to move from what he's had as an intractable position because, as you said, what is the way out for him to save face?

INSKEEP: Domenico, thanks very much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.