Alexander: Resolving the Shutdown by Going Really Big on Immigration Could be Trump’s Nixon-to-China Moment

Posted on January 3, 2019

“Democrats should recognize that when an elected president, whatever you may think of him, has a legitimate objective, you should bend over backwards to try to meet that objective if you want a result. As for the president, I would suggest he be as specific and reliable as President Obama was in 2015 when he told me he needed three things in order to sign [the Every Student Succeeds Act].”

WASHINGTON, January 3, 2019 — United States Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today said, “Shutting down the government is not a demonstration of skill or courage. It's a demonstration of incompetence, a failure by negotiators,” and offered three specific solutions for reopening the federal government saying that resolving the shutdown “by going real big on immigration could be Trump’s Nixon-to-China moment in history.” 

“Since Trump made it clear he won’t sign any legislation to reopen the federal government without some increase to funding for border security, here are three options for where we could go from here to get out of this hole that we've dug for ourselves,” Alexander said in a speech delivered this afternoon on the Senate floor.

Go small—Give the president the $1.6 billion he asked for in this year’s budget request, which the bipartisan Senate Appropriations Committee approved. Provide an additional $1 billion to improve border security at ports of entry, which everyone concedes is needed. Or even better, go bigger—Pass the bill that 54 senators voted for last February, which combined a solution for children brought to the United States illegally and $25 billion in appropriated funding for border security over 10 years. The bill failed only because of last-minute White House opposition. Or even better, go really big—Begin the new Congress by creating a legal immigration system that secures our borders and defines legal status for those already here. In 2013, 68 senators — including all 54 Democrats — voted for such a bill, but the House refused to take it up. That bill included more than $40 billion and many other provisions to secure our borders.

“We could go small. We could go a little bigger. But I'd like to see the president say, ‘Okay, we've got a new congress. We've got divided government. I'm the president who can actually make this happen. I believe the American people would trust me if I said we were creating a comprehensive legal immigration system.’ Get us unstuck from this partial government shutdown and go real big on immigration.”

Alexander told a story that could offer a lesson about how to resolve the shutdown:

“In the summer of 2015, President Obama invited Senator Patty Murray and me to the White House for a meeting with him in the Oval Office to talk about our work in Congress on trying to fix ‘No Child Left Behind.’ If you think that resolving an impasse on border security is difficult, try setting federal policy for our 100,000 public schools.

“On that day, the president said to me and to Senator Murray that there were three things he wanted in the legislation before he could sign it. I told the president that if he would not oppose the bill as it made its way through the Congress, those three things would be in the final bill or I wouldn't bring it to him.

“On December 10th, 2015, President Obama signed that bill. It's called the Every Student Succeeds Act. He called it a ‘Christmas miracle,’ even though there were plenty of provisions in it he didn't agree with. ‘You kept your word,’ he told me. I said ‘you did too.’ That's how you get a result when you have divided government and strongly held opinions.

“Why as a Republican would I agree to a Democratic president’s requests with which I did not concur? Because I have read the United States Constitution. That's why I understand that if the president does not sign a law, it does not become a law. On the other hand, I knew that the entire law was historic in what it was doing. The Wall Street Journal called it ‘the largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter-century.’ It repealed the Common Core mandate, dismantled a national school board, and restored local control of schools.”

Alexander told another story that could offer a lesson:

“The next year we were working on something called the 21st Century Cures Act, under the same President and the same Congress. President Obama wanted Precision Medicine; that was in there. Vice President Biden wanted a cancer moonshot. His son had died from cancer that previous year; that was in there. Senator McConnell, the Majority Leader, said he wanted something on regenerative medicine; that was in there. Speaker Ryan said he wouldn't approve it unless it had funding in a particular way, so we did it that way, and still we were having a hard time with it.

“I remember calling Vice President Biden at one point late in the year of 2016 and saying, ‘Joe, I've got this all tied up with a ribbon around it.’ It's got all of what I just described in there -- precision medicine, cancer moonshot, funding for biomedical research, regenerative medicine. ‘I feel like a butler standing outside the door of the Oval Office with an order on a silver platter and no one will open the door.’ And the vice president said, ‘If you want to feel like a butler, try being the vice president.’

“He went to work and that bill was signed in December of 2016 and Senator McConnell said it was the most important legislation of the congress. Now that wasn't because I took a position and President Obama took a position and the vice president took a position. It’s because we worked together understanding that we had to agree to get a result. So what is the lesson for today?

“First, Democrats should recognize now as I did that when an elected president, one elected by the people of the United States, whatever you may think of him, has a legitimate objective, you should bend over backwards to try to meet that objective if you want a result. Now, as for the president, and in this case, President Trump, I would suggest he should be as specific and reliable as President Obama was in 2015 when he told me he needed three things in order to sign a bill.”

Watch Senator Alexander’s floor remarks here.

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Lamar Alexander is the senior senator from Tennessee, and he serves as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development. For his full biography, click here.