Montana’s congressional delegation saw no end in sight Friday to the partial federal government shutdown, poised to set a record as longest ever come Saturday.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester lamented the shutdown for leaving thousands of Montanans without a paycheck Friday. Talks between congressional Democrats and President Donald Trump over the president’s demand for $5.7 billion for a southern border wall are at a standstill, with the federal government unlikely to fully function until the parties relent.
The Big Sandy Democrat said Trump would have to offer a detailed plan for how the $5.7 billion would be spent, in order to get Tester’s support. The president had put forth a plan last year for $1.6 billion in border security spending and won Democratic support, Tester said, but hasn’t done the same for the $5.7 billion.
We can continue to have the debate about the best way to secure the border, but we should not be holding the American people hostage. We've got a lot of work to do and that work starts with opening the government of the United States. #mtpol https://t.co/qBK7c7GQ7M pic.twitter.com/A4bXprFqnG— Senator Jon Tester (@SenatorTester) January 11, 2019
“We need to first of all get a plan, which is what we asked for, and we got a plan for $1.6 billion but not for $5.7 billion,” Tester said. “We ought to do some comparative analysis of what’s most effective, technology, manpower, wall, all of the above, whatever it might be so we know. Because I know for a fact we can do technology for pennies on the dollar for what we can build that wall for. And you can change that technology to meet the threat, but we’ve never had any analysis, so that’s just a farmer talking, OK?”
As the week ended, House lawmakers joined the Senate in near unanimity to pass a law paying furloughed government workers, more than 800,000 nationwide and several thousand in Montana. The vote might have been the only thing on which Tester and Republican senators Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte agreed.
“It’s really a bad use of taxpayer dollars, this shutdown, and this is a prime example. They’re going to get paid for not working. And it’s not their fault,” Tester said. “It’s the government’s fault. It’s our fault. It’s Congress' fault. It’s the president’s fault.”
Like Tester and Daines, Gianforte voted for giving back pay to the federal workers once the government fully reopens. Federal employees told The Billings Gazette this week they were making ends meet by cutting spending and borrowing money. Indian Health Service employees were among Montana’s federal workers obligated to clock in for free. Gianforte supported a House bill Friday specifically to fund IHS. One of the wealthiest members of Congress, he has declined to be paid until the shutdown ends.
Gianforte put blame for the shutdown squarely on Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have both voted for billions of dollars of border security spending in the past, Gianforte said. Like Trump, he describes the state of the U.S. southern border as a national crisis, to which Democrats should support funding to address.
Pelosi and Schumer have objected to spending $5.7 billion on a border wall, money that would be a down payment for a project estimated to cost hundreds of billions, a project that Trump as a candidate said Mexico would pay for. Taxpayers are the only ones directly paying the bill if the wall goes forward.
Pelosi, who became speaker again last week after Democrats in the 2018 elections won 40 House seats previously held by Republicans, lead the effort to pass a House version of a wall-less December Senate bill to keep the government running into February.
Trump has threatened to use his presidential powers to call a national emergency and sped whatever money is on hand without Congressional approval to build a wall. Gianforte said he’s hopeful the declaration wouldn’t be necessary.
“I hope it doesn’t come to that. I think the president has expressed he’s reluctant to do that as well, but will if he has to. We’ve got to take one step at a time,” Gianforte said. “The Democrats just last year voted for $1.6 billion to secure the border in part. That was a down payment. We need to complete it. I think Americans are pretty consistent on this. The majority of the calls we’re getting to our office here are saying, 'Secure our border,' and I’m going to stand with the president on this.
“There’s not even a conversation going on right now. This whole situation could be resolved in a 45-minute meeting between the president, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. There’s no conversation now because the Democrats are sitting on their hands trying to play political games.”
Border security and immigration have been campaign issues for the Montana Republicans during three election years, whether the talking point was a border wall or preventing communities from offering sanctuary to illegal aliens or refugees. Gianforte has been a candidate in all three of those election years.
Friday, Gianforte said meth from Mexico is passing through the southern border and making its way to Montana, where local law enforcement agencies say meth is a problem.
Tester has also identified drug smuggling as a problem, but says most of the drugs pass into the United States hidden in cars, a problem Democrats say would be better addressed with more vehicle checkpoints, not with a wall.
Daines said House Democrats have to relent, at least meeting Trump part way to $5.7 billion. During the past week Daines has declined to be paid until the partial shutdown ends. He’s offered a bill requiring all lawmakers to do the same. Friday, he introduced a new bill preventing future shutdowns.
“Nancy Pelosi is saying zero, zero. That is not a reasonable position to take. The president has put a $5 billion-plus number on the table. Pelosi is saying zero,” Daines said. “She was elected speaker with 220 votes. It takes 218 to become speaker. She is being controlled by the extreme, far-left wing of the Democratic party. And because of that, it is putting her in a position where she’s not coming to the table with good-faith negotiations. Zero is her position. The president’s is $5 billion. He will move to the middle to find some number between zero and $5 billion.”
After the Senate passed a wall-less bill in late December to keep the government fully operating into February, Daines sided with the president in suggesting that the Senate needed to add a wall to its proposal and take the funding measure up again. The senator suggested Republicans change the chamber’s rules so the legislation could be passed with a simple majority requiring no votes from Democrats. At the same time, House Republicans used their final day of majority control to pass a short-term funding bill complete with Trump’s $5.7 billion for the wall.
Republicans controlled both the Senate and House on that final day of congressional business in 2018. It was their last chance to find a way to get a bill passed without cooperation from Democrats. But it didn’t happen. The so-called “nuclear option,” which Daines had proposed in order to block Democrats from stopping the funding bill by filibuster, was never taken up.
“I don’t think we had the votes to do it at that point,” Daines said. “By doing so, we would have set a precedent going forward,” a precedent Republicans didn’t want Democrats to follow should the minority gain Senate control in the 2020 elections.
Democrats now have to be dealt with. But like Trump, Daines won’t move forward without money for a wall.
“You look at some of the fundamental roles the government has, one of them is securing our borders,” Daines said. “Doing this is not just an act of border security, it’s an act of compassion. Congress needs to reach a deal, needs to come together, needs to find middle ground, fund border security and open the government. I’m not going to stop fighting for that.”