The first order of business for the new Congress that convenes Thursday is to settle old business. That includes promptly ending a partial shutdown of the federal government now in its second week by finding a reasonable compromise on border security with President Donald Trump. In this new era of divided government, Republicans and Democrats alike have a stake in resolving this impasse and in rebuilding public confidence in their ability to lead.
Any hopes for reaching an agreement sometime soon remain uncertain at best. Trump has refused to back down from his demand for $5 billion in funding for an unnecessary wall along the border with Mexico even as other reports suggest the reference to a wall is a metaphor for broader security. In a barrage of tweets Monday, the president alternately blasted Democrats as weak while imploring them to support his border wall, and insisted that "an all concrete Wall was NEVER ABANDONED," an apparent retort to the claims made Sunday by the departing White House chief of staff, John Kelly, who said the idea of a concrete wall had been jettisoned "early on in the administration."
Trump further muddied the waters Monday in his response to Kelly's remarks, declaring "the experts at Border Patrol prefer a Wall that is see through (thereby making it possible to see what is happening on both sides). Makes sense to me!" If that is an opening to a deal, the White House and congressional Democrats should revisit a series of counter-proposals before the Christmas break that would have provided between $1.3 billion and $2.5 billion for border security, including new fencing.
Trump should recognize he doesn't have the votes in Congress for his envisioned border wall. Experts and administration officials also have made clear to the White House that securing the border will mean different things in different places, from physical barriers and surveillance technology to additional border agents. Democrats should realize that a border deal with Trump would give them leverage in passing the outstanding spending bills, earning them a chance to win an early victory as the House majority. Their plan to pass another stopgap spending bill Thursday with existing funding for border security is not likely to be approved by the Senate but could set the stage for more serious negotiations.
Democrats won the popular vote in the House by the largest margins since the Watergate scandal, and some in the House leadership are already licking their chops at the potential for payback by subjecting Trump, his family and the administration to no end of congressional inquiries. This president, as every president, needs to be held accountable, and Congress has a role and a responsibility to oversee and serve as a check on the executive branch. But Americans also expect results even from a divided government, and for elected leaders in Washington to put the nation's interests, security and well-being ahead of partisan warfare. Congress should wait for special counsel Robert Mueller to finish his investigation before opening new ones.
The president and congressional Democrats have made their points, and some 800,000 federal workers have paid the price over the holiday. Now it's time for both sides to cut a reasonable deal, get the government funded and back to work and to focus on larger areas - infrastructure spending, for example - where Democrats and Republicans can come together instead of maneuvering already for the 2020 elections.