One of seven lawmakers tasked with crafting a plan to avoid another government shutdown, Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said he’s optimistic Congress will have something to vote on early next week.
The government is running on just three weeks’ worth of funding at the moment, after being partially shut down for a record 35 days. It will run out of money again Feb. 15 if Congress doesn’t act. At issue is President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in southern border wall funding, to which Democrats object.
The president has vowed to veto any bill to fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year unless the wall money is included. Democrats in control of the House have refused to give the president any money. Tester said it’s looking like neither Trump nor the House Dems will get what they want, but conference committee members are still divided on a compromise amount.
“Where we’re at right now is there’s still some gap. It’s not a huge gap, but it’s pretty big,” Tester said. “I still think there’s a possibility of getting this done before we fire up on Monday.”
Montana’s Democratic senator is one of the seven lawmakers tasked with coming up with a bill to prevent another shutdown and, if necessary, survive a presidential veto.
There are differences not only in the amount committed to border wall spending, but also for security technology at ports of entry along the U.S. border with Mexico. Democrats have been insistent that the better answer to border security is improved technology and not an extensive physical barrier.
“My personal opinion is that we ought to pound that technology at the port,” Tester said. “Because there’s a billion dollars that comes across the border every day, the Mexican border with the United States. We've got to get to the point where we can scan 100 percent of the trucks and 100 percent of the cars, because quite frankly as we build a fence, it will funnel, even though the vast majority of drugs come through our ports already, it will funnel even more. And, if you don’t have the technology to begin with, what are you doing?”
There are also calls for an investment in infrastructure and manpower necessary to handle immigrants seeking U.S. entry more humanely, this after some children detained at the border died in U.S. custody in 2018.
The $5.7 billion that Trump has demanded pays for a little more than 200 miles of wall along the 1,950-mile border. About 650 miles of the border are currently fenced off, with miles of gaps between sections.
Republicans on the conference committee aren’t holding fast to the president’s $5.7 billion request, Tester said. House Democrats on the committee aren’t holding fast to no wall funding.
Tester said comments made this week by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, suggest that Senate Republicans are ready to deal.
If there’s agreement, then another shutdown can be avoided. The last one left more than 7,000 Montanans who work for the federal government without a paycheck for over a month, doing the same to more than 800,000 government workers nationally.
Tester is is the highest ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Subcommittee of Senate Appropriations. That role landed him on the committee to resolve the border security dispute. If there’s border security money to be spent, Tester’s subcommittee will be first to deal with it.