STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
One day before a deadline to fund the government, midnight tonight, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was in a tough spot. Republicans control Congress and the White House, so they take the lead in a basic bill to fund the government. But with a narrow Senate majority, McConnell needs at least some Democrats. And Democrats are demanding that this spending bill include help for people brought illegally to the United States as children, whose legal protections soon expire - the DREAMers, as they're called. Mitch McConnell was not happy last night.
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MITCH MCCONNELL: So it's appropriate to ask the question, why are we are where we are - only one reason, the continued interjection of an issue about which there is no urgency into a discussion about how to deal with a potpourri of issues that do need to be urgently met. And that's the issue of illegal immigration.
INSKEEP: One of the Democrats who face a confrontation today with McConnell's Republicans is Senator Chris Van Hollen - Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. Senator, welcome back to the program.
CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Steve, great to be with you.
INSKEEP: OK, so the House passed a measure, funds the government for a month - also a big extension in there for a children's health program. Will you vote for that?
VAN HOLLEN: I will not vote for that. Look. There are lots of issues that need to be resolved. First and foremost, we need to get a budget for the U.S. government. We've been operating under these short-term CRs. We're four months into the fiscal year. And we do not have a budget for the U.S. government. And so in addition to the DACA issue, there are issues of funding community health centers, of funding the fight against the opioid epidemic, funding for veterans and all sorts of other issues which is why, Steve, Republican senators agree with us that we need to get together and get a final deal on the budget. In fact, just last night, the Pentagon spokeswoman said that the CRs are wasteful and destructive and were beginning to hurt the military and called upon us to get a budget.
INSKEEP: Well, let's stipulate that short-term spending when you'd rather be thinking long term is ridiculous. Let's stipulate that. But if the choice is short-term extension or the government shutdown, are you going to vote for the government shutdown?
VAN HOLLEN: I'm not voting for a government shutdown. I'm voting to get an agreement to move forward. As you heard Mitch McConnell say last night in part of that same speech, the problem, from his perspective, is that the president of the United States doesn't know what he wants with respect to DACA even though the president called upon Republicans and Democrats to come up with a bipartisan agreement. They followed his request. They came up with a bipartisan agreement. And so we actually have the votes in the Senate to pass an agreement. And as Jeff Flake, the Republican senator from Arizona, said last night, let's get it done. Why are we waiting on the president? Let's send him a bill. He said he would sign what we send him.
INSKEEP: Now the House passed a measure that does not include DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, but does include an extension for Children's Health Insurance, another thing that Democrats and Republicans say they want. Tom Garrett of Virginia, a Republican in the House, was talking about this earlier in the program. And he essentially said if you guys don't pick that up and do it, it's going to be your fault because you're going to miss a chance to do a lot of good. Let's listen to a bit of that.
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TOM GARRETT JR.: So I invite Senator Schumer to join us, avoid this Schumer shutdown and bring this health insurance to these children, who by know no actions of their own are the most vulnerable among us.
INSKEEP: Isn't it true if the game of chicken doesn't work out - if the government shuts down, Democrats will be blamed?
VAN HOLLEN: Well, the government's not going to shut down and if so long as Republicans agree, of course, to fund the Children's Health Insurance Program. We've been pushing for that since September, but we've also been pushing to keep the community health centers open. We've been pushing to make sure there's funding for veterans. We've been funding to make sure we have a budget for the Defense Department so that we don't have this situation that Defense Department itself is now saying is very destructive to our military readiness.
So what Republicans in the Senate proposed yesterday was let's just have a very short-term CR - three or four days over the weekend. Let's stay in. Let's iron these things out. And Senator Schumer of the Democrats said, yeah, let's do that. That was a Senate Republican proposal. We don't have to shut down the government, but we shouldn't keep kicking the can down the road. Let's stay in. Let's get it done. President should stay in town. He shouldn't go to Mar-A-Lago. Let's get it done.
INSKEEP: OK, three or four days - so now we've gotten down to a difference between a one-month, short-term continuing resolution and a three or four-day continuing resolution. Is that really an unbridgeable difference?
VAN HOLLEN: Well, the issue is that the underlying issue should not be unbridgeable. And we all know in the Senate what the solution is. In fact, there's a majority in the Senate, Steve, for an agreement, including an agreement on DACA. You have seven Republican senators supporting the bipartisan agreement reached between Lindsey Graham, Dick Durbin and others. You had the president of the United States say that he would sign a bipartisan agreement before he backed off with his repulsive racist comments in the Oval Office.
So the only thing that's holding us up in the Senate is that Mitch McConnell wants to sit back and wait for the president. So if the president the United States whether by design or incompetence is going to shut down the government, that is a big problem. After all, he's the only one that's tweeted about, quote, "good government shutdown." I hope he will show some leadership. He said he's the great negotiator. Let's get it done.
INSKEEP: Senator, thanks very much - pleasure talking with you.
VAN HOLLEN: Good to be with you.
INSKEEP: Chris Van Hollen is a Democratic senator from Maryland and one of the lawmakers under pressure today. NPR's Susan Davis covers Congress, and she's in our studios once again. She's been listening along. Hi, Sue.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: How're you doing?
INSKEEP: What do you make of what you hear there?
DAVIS: It's so interesting because I think you heard, both between Congressman Garrett and Senator Van Hollen, the two arguments the parties are making here over who's going to take ownership if the government does shut down. Republicans are going to make the argument - as they're calling it, the Schumer shutdown in terms of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Democrats are the ones that really do have power here. Their votes were always going to be necessary to keep the government open. They're saying, we're not going to give them to you.
The risk Democrats may run in this is do they overplay their hand. In these previous iterations we've had in shutdown fights, and most recently in 2013, Democrats always made the argument that they were the party of responsible government. They don't shut down governments. They run governments. If they are seen as being the party that drives this, is there a political blowback? Republicans think there may be although Democrats are looking at this argument right now. They see a 38-percent-approval-rating president and a majority of Americans who agree with them on the issue of DACA and Dreamers.
INSKEEP: So suppose it comes to a shutdown. I think we can presume it's not going to come to a shutdown unless one party or both thinks to themselves, this is in our political interest. We can win this on the politics if there is a shutdown. So based on your reporting, Sue, does either party right now think a shutdown could work for them?
DAVIS: What we know, as of this morning, is they don't have the votes to pass the House-passed bill. The bill on the table does not have the votes in the Senate. The question that remains is will Republicans accept Democrats counteroffer - this idea of a three, four, five-day CR to keep negotiations going. Or do Republicans call their bluff? And we head into a weekend shutdown situation.
INSKEEP: But are Republicans - or Democrats, either one - saying to you, you know, if they shut down the government, they're going to be destroyed - I mean, that the other side will be destroyed is what I'm saying.
DAVIS: You know, it's really hard to say because, again, if you go back to that 2013 shutdown, that was really driven by Texas Senator Ted Cruz. And Republicans were seen as maybe taking the blame for that.
DAVIS: And then in the 2014 midterms, they had a very good year. So I'm not sure that the most recent political lessons of shutdowns are that if you're the one driving it, you're the one that gets blamed for it.
INSKEEP: And we're in a new circumstance - a news cycle where every epic, unbelievable, unforgettable story is forgotten by three days later because so much more has happened. Sue, thanks very much.
DAVIS: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.