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Lawmakers Have Until Friday To Avoid A Government Shutdown

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The stalemate goes on. There is no sign yet that Congress will act to prevent a partial government shutdown at the end of this week. Lawmakers have until Friday to pass a budget. The sticking point here is President Trump's border wall. He's demanding $5 billion to pay for it. On CBS "Face The Nation" yesterday, White House adviser Stephen Miller doubled down on the president's threat that he will allow a shutdown if he doesn't get his way.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

STEPHEN MILLER: At stake is the question of whether or not the United States remains a sovereign country. The Democrat Party has a simple choice. They can either choose to fight for America's working class or to promote illegal immigration.

GREENE: All right. Democratic leaders are holding firm, as well. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says Republicans don't have the votes to pass funding for a wall by themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: Nothing is going to change in that regard. I don't know why we just don't proceed to keep government open so that people can be home for the holidays.

GREENE: Now, we should say leaders from both parties have acknowledged that a shutdown is not likely to sit well with much of the American public. I want to bring in Scott Jennings here. He's a Republican strategist who was an adviser to President George W. Bush. Scott, welcome back to the program.

SCOTT JENNINGS: Thanks. Good morning.

GREENE: Do you agree with Stephen Miller that our country is not a sovereign country if this wall is not built and the Democrats, if they don't support this wall, are promoting, quote, "illegal immigration?"

JENNINGS: Well, I agree that that is the message that the White House is going to promote and try to turn this into a very simple political choice. And I do agree that a lot of Republicans will see it that way. They will see it through the lens of the Democrats want weak borders and lax immigration controls and that Republicans want strong borders. I don't know that a majority of the American people will see it that way. And certainly, it's not a message that's going to go unchallenged by the Democrats, who are going to have a much stronger hand to play on this come January 3 when they take control of the House. For the president's base, it's a great message. For the public at large, I'm not sure it's a total winner, but, of course, this is the message the president's been on from Day One.

GREENE: So do you think that lawmakers, Republicans in Congress and the White House share a goal for this week on how - what the endgame should be here? Or are they totally far apart?

JENNINGS: No. I don't believe they share a goal because I'm not sure the president has given them an endgame, particularly when you consider that the calendar is working against the Republicans. I think a goal for the Republican leaders in Congress is to get the government open. You know, they were very proud to have funded 75 percent of the government basically on time. We're now fighting over the last 25 percent of government funding here. So it makes the conclusion of a two-year period in which Republicans control everything look relatively dysfunctional if you close out your time in charge, in total charge, by shutting down the government.

So no, I don't think they have a unified goal yet. I do think everybody wants strong border security, but I'm not sure the Republicans understand how they're going to get a wall when they're up against the deadline of Democrats taking over control of the House.

GREENE: I saw some reports that some Republican members of Congress who are either retiring or who lost in the races might not even show up for a vote at the end of this week. I mean, do you see that as possible, and what does that say about the party right now?

JENNINGS: Very possible. It's already happening. Several people who lost have not been coming in since the election. I've heard that up on Capitol Hill. They don't feel like they have any incentive to go finish out their jobs for whatever reason. But, frankly, I think Pelosi is not incorrect when she says it's not altogether clear that Republicans could muster the votes to fund the president's wall because of those losses, because of those retirements. I mean, look. The glaring problem in the president's strategy is that if he wanted to build the wall, he had two years to do it with full Republican control, and it hasn't gotten done. Now it's much harder because of the issue you just raised, and because Democrats are about to take over the House.

It might be, at this point, the president needs to consider a retreat or a pivot on strategy and go to something, what I would call a wall-plus, where you call it barriers, technology and people. You can tell your base you fought for the wall and got the best deal you could, but you're pivoting to something that's actually politically possible on Capitol Hill, given the new dynamic.

GREENE: But let me pick up on something you said at the start of our conversation, that this is a message from the White House that works well with the Republican base, the president's base. Why change the messaging if it is effective? And if it is effective, what do you do if your lawmakers from the Republican Party in Congress who are watching this don't necessarily agree with the message but, as you said, see it being effective with a lot of Republican voters?

JENNINGS: Well, yeah. You raise the issue. It's effective with a certain segment of the population. It's not broadly effective, and it's not necessarily workable to keep the government shut down for weeks and weeks and weeks when you have divided government here at the beginning of a new year. So at some point, something will give after days or weeks. But it seems to me the Democrats going into a presidential cycle are not going to give in on this, given what their base activist voters want, as well. Remember, it's not just the Republican base we're talking about. The Democratic base is asking their leaders, who just won the election, to stand firm.

So it strikes me that the president is going to need to clear the decks on this and get a win of some kind. And a win here would be a pivot to something - barriers, technology and people, a wall-plus - that he can go back to his folks and say, I did the best I could. I'm still fighting. You know, re-elect me. Let's get it right in the future.

GREENE: Scott Jennings was an adviser to President George W. Bush. He's a Republican strategist. You've heard him on our program before. Scott, thanks so much.

JENNINGS: Yep. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.