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Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen Discusses Latest In Talks To End Shutdown

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

After weeks of a stalemate, today's two failed Senate votes and countless hours of unpaid work by federal workers - a glimmer of progress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer met this afternoon to discuss a three-week stopgap bill that could reopen the government. Meanwhile, President Trump says he's open to a compromise with Democrats if it includes a down payment on a border wall. There's no deal, but it's more movement than we've seen in a while.

I'm joined by Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. Welcome to the program.

CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Hi, Audie - good to be with you.

CORNISH: So when we talk about this potential compromise, my first question is about the idea of a down payment. What would that mean? How much money would that be?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, this is a new issue that President Trump just threw into the mix after we'd proceeded on the Senate floor to bring together a bipartisan group of senators to agree to support an amendment - a bipartisan amendment to reopen the government for three weeks - not ideal but the best option right now - and use that time to work out a longer-term solution. It could include border security issues. It could include immigration issues. And that was a good news moment in the United States Senate.

Just as we were sort of leaving the floor there together on a bipartisan basis, we got news that the president would only accept a three-week opening of the government if he got, quote, "a big down payment on the wall." And it's not clear exactly what he means, but the whole purpose of this bipartisan effort was to say, let's take time out, and let's use that time to have a negotiation. We're not going to have any preconditions other than an understanding that we're going to try in a very serious way to work all this out.

CORNISH: What makes you think in three weeks you could find areas of compromise that you couldn't find in the last 34 days.

VAN HOLLEN: Well, when you're trying to negotiate under this effort the president's undertaken to hold the country hostage, it's very, very difficult. And one of the reasons is because nobody, Republicans or Democrats, want to reward the tactic of a government shutdown because that will just encourage the president to engage in future shutdowns.

In fact, one of the areas where there's growing bipartisan consensus is that whatever agreement is ultimately reached includes legislation that would essentially prevent government shutdowns. There are ways to do it. But the main point here - and this is what we thought was a positive step this evening - was a pretty strong bipartisan group of senators saying, let's take this time out; let's take a breather, and let's work this out. We do think that we can find a solution here.

CORNISH: I want to jump in because, also, CNN is reporting that the White House is also preparing a draft proclamation to declare a national emergency. Do you have any recourse to stop such a move if the White House tried to use that technique to find its money for its border security?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, the Congress doesn't have a viable response to that because it would ultimately require legislation and enough votes to overcome a presidential veto. So the effort to address that abuse of power would be through the courts. And the reality is the only crisis that we've got here is the one that President Trump has created by shutting down the government, something he said back in December he'd be proud to do. And it would be quite an abuse of power to call for the use of emergency powers when the only real crisis here is the one that was created by the president with the shutdown.

CORNISH: I realize for Democrats very much so it's important that the president be the one to take the blame for this shutdown, but voters are looking at both parties and seeing a problem. So what do you say to the thousands of government workers who hear you talking about not rewarding tactics and things like that and who are, you know, standing in line at food banks?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, and I was just with many of them yesterday at a food bank. And Senator Cardin and I visited with a group of small businesses in our state of Maryland today. And absolutely you have a situation now where people are being punished, federal employees who aren't getting paychecks and others. That is exactly why, Audie, you had a group of bipartisan senators come today after the other two votes had failed and said, let's have a fresh start; let's have this three-week timeout and use that time constructively. And that's what I hope we will do. And Senator McConnell and Senator Schumer are working, I believe, to try to accomplish that.

CORNISH: That's Chris Van Hollen, Democratic senator from Maryland. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

VAN HOLLEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.