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Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin Discusses Meeting With Trump Over Government Shutdown


We're going to turn now to one of the Democratic leaders in the briefing this afternoon, Minority Senate Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. Welcome to the program.

DICK DURBIN: It's good to be with you.

CORNISH: So what was the tenor and atmosphere of this meeting?

DURBIN: Well, it was a pretty interesting gathering. It was in the Situation Room, which is considered to be a room for highly classified, top-secret information to be discussed. But we didn't get anywhere near that. We get into the top political information that was being discussed in Washington. It originally was billed as a briefing from the Department of Homeland Security on the border situation, but we moved almost immediately to the whole question of the government shutdown. It just loomed...

CORNISH: Was it anything like the meeting that we saw a few weeks ago between the president and Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer?

DURBIN: I wasn't at the earlier meeting. But from what I gathered in the press reporting - and, of course, it was televised - this was a much different tenor. There were more people involved, including the vice president, of course, and Leader Schumer, speaker-elect - I would guess - Nancy Pelosi is the right title, myself and Steny Hoyer and then many others from the administration, as well as the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate.

CORNISH: You said the president has taken the government, quote, "hostage" over the border wall, but your party hasn't given much ground either. Why not?

DURBIN: Well, I think the starting point, the premise of the meeting was, Mr. President, why do you want to inflict pain on agencies of this government that are not involved in the dispute at hand? And the dispute at hand is over border security and a wall. So why don't you take the eight other federal agencies and allow us to fund them at the levels - the same levels chosen by Senate Republicans?

CORNISH: What was his answer?

DURBIN: It was interesting because when we were saying, why don't you just fund eight of these agencies that are not in controversy - the Department of Homeland Security, the issue of border security, the wall, that's where we're stuck - why do you want to take this out on an agency like the Department of Transportation? There wasn't a good response.

But by the end of it, it was pretty clear - the Republicans and the president believe that they have a stronger hand if there are more agencies at risk because of the government shutdown.

CORNISH: Earlier this week, the president said he was open-minded to linking funding for his wall to the DACA program. Today, he said he'd prefer to wait for a Supreme Court ruling on the legality of that program. He has repeatedly put things on and off the negotiation table. So how does that affect what you guys are trying to do?

DURBIN: I've got to tell you, this is very personal to me. It goes back 17 years-plus when I introduced the DREAM Act. I can't tell you the hundreds, if not thousands, of young people that I've met and their families - they hang on every word, every news report as to their futures and whether they're going to be deported, whether they can legally work, whether they should continue in school.

And I just don't want to open this door and start talking about this issue until there is some assurance that the president is willing to take any immigration reform proposal, including DACA and the DREAMers, in a more serious way than he was a year ago.

CORNISH: But to follow up, you said there were a lot of people in that room. But do you get the sense any of them can really say yay or nay to a deal other than the president? I mean, is it making it complicated to negotiate?

DURBIN: His is this the bottom word, the bottom line in this. He has the last word. He will decide when this government shutdown ends. Nancy Pelosi, tomorrow, believes the first act as speaker will be to have the House send over to Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, a bill that basically funds the eight agencies, leaving only one - DHS - unfunded.

Mitch McConnell said over and over again and again today, I'm not going to pass anything in the Senate till the president says that it's - gets the green light, that he'll sign it. At this point, we don't have that assurance from the president.

CORNISH: Did you walk away from this meeting thinking you were any closer to resolving a government shutdown?

DURBIN: No, unfortunately. And the president had the power to end at least the major part of that shutdown with just a nod in the right direction toward Mitch McConnell. That's what Senator McConnell is waiting for. It's really in the president's hands.

CORNISH: That's Illinois Senator, Democrat Dick Durbin. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DURBIN: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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