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Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen Weighs In On Shutdown Deal

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's bring in one of the senators who's going to be voting on this, Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. Welcome back.

CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Mary Louise, great to be back.

KELLY: Was anything achieved by this shutdown?

VAN HOLLEN: Oh, this was a shameful and unnecessary shutdown from day one. So the answer is no. The president's decision to shut down the government simply imposed lots of pain and financial hardship not only on 800,000 federal employees but Americans throughout the country. And so I'm glad we reached today. I wish it had been for not just three weeks, but three weeks is the best available option, and we need to make the best of it.

KELLY: Stay with that three weeks, which is how much time you have got. President Trump is threatening to shut the government down again if he does not get money for a border wall or a deal. Can you reach a deal on border security by February 15?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, I believe we can. This is actually a proposal that was floated by myself, Senator Cardin and a bipartisan group of senators in the last 36 hours. We proposed an amendment last night on the Senate floor to reopen the government unconditionally for three weeks but with the understanding - and there was a discussion on the floor of the Senate last night - that we would work in good faith to try to resolve border security issues. There's no dispute about the need for strong border security. And we would discuss other immigration issues and other priorities. So it is important that we - I realize what a narrow, narrow path that is...

KELLY: Yeah. And when you say you're...

VAN HOLLEN: ...To get through the House and Senate.

KELLY: ...Committed to working in good faith, would you be open to working for a border bill that included some money for a wall? I mean, there are already are sections of a wall up along the border.

VAN HOLLEN: So this will be part of the negotiation. There are many other priorities that come before any additional barriers. As you pointed out, long before the president was sworn in, we had 700 miles of barriers and fence. I can tell you what's not going to happen. We're not going to see the 2,000-mile big Wall of China the president talked about during his campaign that he said he was going to be - you know, paid for by Mexico. But you can see...

KELLY: No, but he suggested a little bit of flexibility in his remarks at the White House today, talking about a see-through - not a concrete wall - see-through steel barrier. What I'm asking is, are Democrats going to give an inch on this in order to keep the government open, you know, past February 15?

VAN HOLLEN: We are going to have a good-faith discussion on the most effective border security. And what we have said all along is we're going to base our judgment on what the experts tell us is needed. As we know, we already have fencing in certain strategic areas. If experts indicate that a couple more miles are necessary in a particular area, obviously that's a matter of discussion and negotiation.

I would point out that in the existing $1.3 billion appropriation, the one that the president stopped from happening, there were funds for some additional barriers in strategic locations. So when the president shut down the government, he also shut down, at least temporarily, funding that had already been approved last year on a bipartisan basis.

So as you were pointing out - look; this has come about because the president said during the campaign that he was going to build this 2,000-mile-long wall like the Wall of China. And now that's not going to happen. He shut down the government. I hope he realizes that that's not going to happen. We can get back to a sober and same conversation about smart border security and...

KELLY: That prompts my last question. In the seconds we have left, what is a sober and sane conversation look like in Washington in 2019? I mean, is this the new normal in an era of divided government?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, I hope not. I will say that what I hope will be included in any final agreement is a provision to prevent this kind of government shutdown at least for the foreseeable future. There are legislative ways of accomplishing that, and there's growing bipartisan support to do that. I also hope that in addition to the fact that we're able to make federal employees whole, that we also deal with the service contract employees who have been totally left out in the cold.

KELLY: Senator, we'll leave it there. That's Democratic Senator...

VAN HOLLEN: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. Thanks so much.

VAN HOLLEN: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.