Time is winding down on the three-week government shutdown pause, and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester says by late next week there needs to be a plan to keep it open.
Montana’s Democratic senator is one of the seven lawmakers tasked with coming up with a bill to prevent another shutdown and, if necessary, survive a presidential veto. Committee members met for the first time Wednesday. One week of the three-week pause expired Friday.
“If we don’t have something signed by a week from tomorrow, I think we have big problems,” Tester said Thursday. “I’ve told everybody because I really believe this, I think we’re going to get an agreement. What’s going to be in that agreement, right now I can’t tell you, because we just started negotiations today. And even if I did know, I’m not sure I would tell you because I don’t want to negotiate this thing out in the papers.”
A week ago, as the 35-day partial shutdown sparked a wave of flight cancellations at the nation’s busiest airports, Congress and President Donald Trump agreed to a continuing resolution fully funding the government until Feb. 15.
The agreement included appointing seven lawmakers to settle a dispute on border security funding, namely Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion, enough to pay for roughly 230 miles of barrier along the 1,954-mile southern border.
The fight over the wall money left more than 800,000 federal workers either sidelined or working without pay for five weeks. There were 7,000 Montanans without a paycheck from the week before Christmas until the end of January. Tribal governments also shut down for lack of funding. Garbage piled up in Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, which were left open to the public, but mostly untended by federal workers.
Tester is one of the seven committee members because he is the highest ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Subcommittee of Senate Appropriations. If there’s border security money to be spent, Tester’s subcommittee will get the first look in the Senate.
Whatever plan the conference committee produces will have to win majority approval by both the Senate and House and then be presented to the president for consideration. Those steps take time, meaning a plan produced by the conference committee by next Friday, with one week to spare in the shutdown pause, could still come down to the wire, especially if Trump vetoes the bill. A two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate would be needed to override the president.
Tester wasn’t assuming Thursday it would be necessary to override a Trump veto. There’s a bill that narrowly passed the Senate last week that basically delivers on Trump’s request. And there’s a proposal by the House Democratic majority that fully funds the government without funding for a border wall.
“The challenge is we need to have something that passes the Senate and the House. The president’s signature is also very, very important, but we also have the ability to do a veto override if in fact (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell will bring it to the floor for that and we have enough votes to do it. If we do our job, hopefully it will be something the president can sign and it will pass the Senate and House and move forward,” Tester said. “But I will also tell you that I think it’s critically important that Congress does its job as the Article One branch of the Constitution and be focused on that and not have it so the executive branch tells us what we should be doing, because quite frankly that’s not how the forefathers set it up.”
The committee will look at what’s best for border security, likely a combination of manpower and technology. A wall across a portion of the U.S. southern border is just part of the discussion. By the end of the first full week of February the goal is to have a plan that doesn’t just address the border security debate, but the keeps the government fully funded through the end of the federal fiscal year in September.
“I just think it’s important as we look at this whole wall dialogue, we need to look at what we’re trying to accomplish here, and that’s to secure the southern border,” Tester said.