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Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries Weighs In On Government Shutdown

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We want to spend the next few minutes now with Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York. He's the incoming chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. Welcome to the program.

HAKEEM JEFFRIES: Thanks for having me on.

CORNISH: So you just heard our reporter Scott Detrow lay out what House Democrats want to do tomorrow - right? - take up bills that would reopen the government but essentially ignore that question of a border wall and funding for a border wall. Now, why move forward with a proposal that the Senate won't take up because the president won't support it?

JEFFRIES: Well, it's not clear to me that the Senate will or will not take it up until they are actually sent over the legislation from the House of Representatives and...

CORNISH: No. Senator Mitch McConnell has said explicitly he will only put a bill on the floor if President Trump says he'll support and sign it.

JEFFRIES: Well, the Senate will be the Senate. The House has to be the House. And at the end of the day, consistent with the Origination Clause in the United States Constitution, the House of Representatives is given the explicit authority to determine initially, in the first instance, how we're going to allocate taxpayer resources. And so that's precisely what we intend to do tomorrow.

CORNISH: You've repeatedly called the president's request for more than $5 billion for the wall a ransom note. Do you see any risk in softening your stance - maybe trying to negotiate with him here?

JEFFRIES: Well, I think the reality of the situation is that at its core the - what we do in government is to manage public money. And we can either manage that money efficiently, or we can waste taxpayer dollars. And what Donald Trump has requested in terms of $5 billion plus for a medieval border wall would be a waste of taxpayer resources.

In the last Congress, we allocated approximately $1.3 billion, and the Trump administration has only spent about 6 percent of that money. So it doesn't make any sense to us that he would be asking for an additional amount - perhaps an excess of $5 billion - when they haven't even spent the resources that have been currently allocated to them.

CORNISH: What's your response to the president accusing Democrats of essentially playing politics - that this is all with an eye towards the 2020 election?

JEFFRIES: Well, we would like to actually reopen government, so we can put aside the political gamesmanship - particularly as it relates to the six appropriations bills, as was pointed out earlier in the show, where there is bipartisan agreement. These are appropriations bills that have already successfully gone through the Senate with Democratic and Republican support.

We should not have those departments that are currently shut down be held as casualties of Donald Trump's effort to shut down 25 percent of the government. Now, he clearly has said that he was going to shut things down, that he was going to own the shutdown, that he was going to be proud to do it. And that is unfortunately why we find ourselves in a situation that we're in right now.

CORNISH: In the meantime, we've got government workers - some of whom we heard on this show yesterday - worried that they're not going to be able to make rent, that they're falling behind financially. What do you have to say to them right now?

JEFFRIES: Well, we're going to do everything possible to get the government reopened, beginning by the steps that we take tomorrow. And hopefully Mitch McConnell and his colleagues in the Senate will realize that they should not function as wholly-owned subsidiaries of the Trump administration.

CORNISH: But do you think the issue of the border wall is worth this price - is that your response to them?

JEFFRIES: Well, my response is that we're a separate and coequal branch of government. We, in the House of Representatives, have a responsibility to be stewards of taxpayer dollars. And what Donald Trump has proposed basically is a 5th-century solution to a 21st-century problem that no legitimate public policy expert believes will actually secure the border. It's Donald Trump who made the decision to shut the government down.

And let's also be clear about something. We still have not assumed control of the House of Representatives. This is a shutdown that took place with Republicans in control of the House, the Senate and the presidency, which is the case until tomorrow January 3.

CORNISH: That's Congressman Hakeem Jeffries. Thank you so much.

JEFFRIES: Thank you.

CORNISH: And we'll be hearing from a Republican on the shutdown elsewhere in the program. Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma will join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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