WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — President Donald Trump’s first primetime Oval Office addressed appeared to have changed few minds on Capitol Hill as a partial government shutdown over border wall funding continued into its 19th day.
“I thought the president did a good job,” said Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas. “He laid out his argument for why we need border security and the humanitarian crisis that actually is down there. He laid it out well. It was easy to understand.”
President Trump delivered a nine-minute address declaring a “crisis of the heart and soul” at the nation’s southern border. He highlighted concerns about drug and human trafficking along the border and the cost of crimes committed by those in the country illegally.
“This is a choice between right and wrong, justice and injustice,” Trump said. “This is about whether we fulfill our sacred duty to the American citizens we serve.”
Trump renewed his demand for $5.7 billion for a border wall, but he is now seeking about $3 billion more for humanitarian aid and other security measures. He challenged Democrats suggestions that the wall is “immoral,” but he also softened his language on using the term “wall” to describe the barrier he wants.
"At the request of Democrats, it will be a steel barrier rather than a concrete wall," Trump claimed at one point, although Democrats had made no such request.
In a rebuttal, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., countered Trump’s claims, accusing him of manufacturing a crisis and “holding the American people hostage” to justify his policies. They argued Trump should allow government agencies to reopen and then work out the most effective way to address border security.
“Sadly, much of what we have heard from President Trump throughout this senseless shutdown has been full of misinformation and even malice,” Pelosi said.
Democrats have offered Trump $1.3 billion for border security, but none of it could be spent on a new wall. The White House has flatly rejected that as woefully inadequate. At this point, Democrats are seeking to fund most of the affected agencies at levels set by Senate Republicans for 2019 and continue DHS funding at the current level through Feb. 8 to allow more time to negotiate a compromise.
“These are the Republican bills we have put forward,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I. “The point is we need to reopen the government. We can have a conversation about what’s the best way to secure our border, but the president’s idea of shutting down the government unless he gets his way is not good for the country.”
Congressional leaders were set to meet again at the White House Wednesday, but there is little indication a solution is imminent with the third week of the shutdown nearing an end. Attitudes toward the shutdown in Congress have fallen primarily along partisan lines throughout the standoff, and Tuesday night was no different.
“I don’t understand the purpose of it,” Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said of Trump’s speech. “It was a little confusing. He tried to paint his approach as humanitarian and compassionate and then turned around and tried to paint immigrants as criminals.”
Republicans were similarly unimpressed by the Democratic leaders’ presentation.
“Schumer and Pelosi should come to the table and satisfy our needs for border security,” said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio. “They say they’re for border security, but they have no alternative plan. They appear to be just opposed to Trump’s plan.”
The partial shutdown affects about 25 percent of government offices, including 800,000 federal employees who are either furloughed or working without pay, and the consequences are becoming increasingly apparent.
“The longer it continues, the worse it’s going to get,” Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-N.Y., said.
As the shutdown drags on, the Trump administration has taken steps to alleviate some potential impacts on government services. Officials are working to ensure tax refunds are sent out on time and food stamp benefits remain funded even if the shutdown lasts weeks or months longer.
Democrats have attempted to highlight the struggles of federal workers who will not get paid if the shutdown continues through the end of the week. Several D.C.-area lawmakers held a press conference outside the Capitol Wednesday to share stories of the difficulties their constituents will face if they continue to go without pay.
“Trump said a lot of words last night, but not one of them was about the federal workforce. It’s time to put civil servants back to work. It’s time to end this shutdown,” said Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., on Facebook.
Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., who sits on the committee with oversight over the Transportation Security Administration, said there has already been a slight uptick in airport screeners calling in sick, and he fears those problems will escalate if they do not get a paycheck Friday.
“I’m blaming both sides for not finding a compromise outside of holding the government hostage,” he said.
Republicans stressed those workers would almost certainly receive back-pay once the government reopens. Many of them also attempted to shift blame solely to Democrats for the impasse.
“It’s unfortunate the government is shutdown, but this could all be changed if congressional Democrats would work with the president on border security,” said Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill.
The House planned to vote Wednesday on bills that would open some of the shuttered agencies, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has dismissed those efforts as show votes because President Trump would not sign them.
“When the Senate begins to realize they don’t actually work to serve the president, they work to serve their constituents, hopefully they’ll grow a spine and pass the funding bills and reopen the government,” Cicilline said.
Lawmakers in both parties have grown frustrated with the stalemate and are eager to see the president and Democratic leaders find a compromise.
“The president is very dead-set on a wall. Democrats are saying no wall. But I think somewhere the answer lies in the middle,” Brindisi said. “We can have funding for some kind of physical barrier, we can more technology along the borderthere needs to be more border agents, but first and foremost we have to get the government up and running.”
Pointing to support from Schumer, Pelosi, and other Democrats for border barriers in some circumstances in the past, Katko urged both sides to “sit down and work it out like adults.”
"It's nuts to think we’re this far into a government shutdown without any compromise on either side,” he said.
One thing everyone agreed on is the need to secure the border, just not necessarily with a large concrete or steel barrier.
“We want to see strong border security,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas. “We want to see something effective instead of this thing the president is so obsessed with, and that’s the border wall, which is a 14th century solution to a 21st century problem.”
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, whose district encompasses more of the border than any other member of Congress, sees technological improvements as more useful than a physical wall. He does believe more resources and significant policy changes are needed for the U.S. to gain operational control of its border, but he has concerns about holding up pay for Border Patrol and TSA agents to get it.
“Negotiating on the backs of these hard-working men and women makes no sense,” he said.
Other GOP lawmakers say a physical barrier of the sort Trump wants, whatever Democrats want to call it, is an essential piece of any border security program.
“I don’t care if you call it fencing, I don’t care if you call it a barrier, I don’t care if you call it a wall, a steel wall, a concrete wall, I’m OK with any of that,” LaHood said, “but you need to have some type of deterrent measure to keep people from coming into this country.”
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who visited several points along the border last summer, suggested the very existence of a wall along the border could be enough to discourage some Central Americans from taking the treacherous journey north hoping to enter the U.S. illegally.
“We forget the enormous risks they take coming up here, I think. If they knew they had to come through a legal port of entry, that our border was secure, it would safer for them,” he said.
While critics maintain Trump’s wall would be a waste of money, some Republicans say the $5 billion the president wants is pocket change for a government that spends trillions of dollars a year.
“We could absolutely open the government back up today, if we agreed on that--and it is such a small amount of money compared to the size of the entire budget or even just the homeland security budget, it's a small amount of money--to help secure our border,” Roe said.
Rep. Cuellar stressed Democrats’ objections to the president’s plan are about more than just the cost, but even at the current price tag, he is unconvinced a wall would be worth it.
“All I need is $100 and I’ll buy a ladder that can take care of that,” he said.