Senators: Yes to federal funding, no to border wall
Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley say they will stand with Democratic colleagues to support funding to reopen federal agencies — but without the $5.7 billion President Donald Trump seeks to build a border wall with Mexico.
Wyden and Merkley made their comments at weekend town hall meetings before an announcement Tuesday by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that the Senate will take two votes Thursday. One would include the $5.7 billion for the wall; the other would simply extend spending authority for the agencies through Feb. 8.
It is uncertain whether either can muster the 60 votes needed to avert a filibuster in the Senate, which would be taking its first votes since Congress began its new session Jan. 3.
But Wyden and Merkley made it clear where they stand.
"Here's the bottom line: We need to get the government open. It's Priority One," Wyden said to applause Sunday at a town hall meeting at Camp Withycombe in Clackamas.
"Once you get the government open, then you can have a debate over a short period about border security, the wall and things the president has been talking about with respect to the wall.
"Every US senator has agreed to what we just described."
Wyden's reference was to a Dec. 19 vote by the Senate to extend federal spending authority through Feb. 8. But that vote omitted any money for the wall — and two days later, the Senate failed to advance a House-passed bill containing the $5.7 billion Trump requested. A partial government shutdown followed on Dec. 22 — and continues into a record-setting second month.
Since the start of this month, the House now operates with a Democratic instead of a Republican majority. The House has approved an extension of spending authority through Feb. 28 — without money for the wall — and on Tuesday, a House panel advanced six appropriations bills to fund agencies through the end of the budget year on Sept. 30. A separate bill for the Department of Homeland Security would extend to Feb. 28.
Merkley said he would support that plan, which would allow most of the 800,000 affected employees to return to work and get back pay. (Some agencies already have their spending authority from Congress for the year.)
"I'd like to see the Senate and House adopt that plan — and if necessary, pass it over a presidential veto," Merkley said at a town hall meeting Monday at Clackamas Community College in Salem. He was greeted by a few boos, which were drowned out by applause.
Both chambers have to pass identical measures, and the president sign them, for anything to become law. A presidential veto requires two-thirds majorities for a successful override, so Democrats and Republicans would have to support it.
Wyden said Trump can make his case for a wall, but his demand cannot hold hostage the rest of federal operations.
"What's important here is that you have to open the government first," Wyden said,
"If you don't open the government first, you are setting a precedent that will allow presidents of any party or any philosophy to say the government will be shut down if they do not get what they want first. That would be a big mistake for the country."
Wyden said the shutdown affects more than federal employees, contractors, and even people who cannot obtain government loans and grants.
He described the case of Jasmine Tool, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee in Lakeview, who has an inoperable brain tumor. He said she was unable to obtain nutrition or home health service — but intervention by his staff finally turned up federal help to reinstate her benefits.
"That was because there wasn't anybody home at the relevant federal agencies," Wyden said. "How can it be that a country as rich, as strong and as good as ours treats Jasmine Tool like this? It is just wrong. We shouldn't be having to do this."
Wyden made a point of Tool's plight during a speech last week in the Senate.
On the disputed wall, Wyden said he has voted for bills that supplied $100 billion for border security during the past five years — but even conservatives who seek more security tell him that more staffing and newer technologies are preferable to a wall.
"The question is: Are we going to deal with this in a cost-effective way, or are we going to sign up for something that may sound good at a rally, but really does not meet the needs of people?"
He and Merkley dismissed as a nonstarter Trump's proposal for Congress to approve wall money in exchange for three-year extensions of programs to shield from deportation young immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children — known as "dreamers" — and to allow 300,000 who have temporary protective status to remain.
Trump himself moved to end both programs, although a federal judge has allowed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to continue much as it has since 2012, when President Barack Obama authorized it.
Merkley has been a vocal critic of Trump policies to deter applicants for asylum and separate children from families seeking to enter the United States.
When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the tougher asylum policy several months ago, Merkley said, "I thought wow, that's a very different story from the Statue of Liberty."
He then recited the lines, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," from the sonnet "The New Colossus" inscribed at the base of the statue in New York harbor.
"It represents my view that for families fleeing from persecution in the world and ending up on our shores, we should treat them with dignity," he said to applause.
Just last month, Merkley and other members of Congress visited three tent encampments in Texas housing thousands detained while their cases await resolution. One of them is shutting down anyway, but Merkley has introduced a bill to shut down one camp in Texas — with an estimated 2,800 teenage migrants — and another in Florida.
"It's spooky to me that anybody should ever have to introduce a bill that says no internment camps," he said, referring to a network of such camps that housed Japanese-Americans during World War II.
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