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Panetta: Shutdown is ‘punishing innocent people’

The ongoing government shutdown is not the first time a political stalemate has caused federal agencies to close and workers to go without paychecks. Leon Panetta, who was White House chief of staff during a shutdown under President Clinton, tells Judy Woodruff why reopening the government is the top priority and that there's "no excuse" for failing to do so, plus how Democrats can negotiate.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The breakdown of talks at the White House today demonstrates the deep divides on both policy and politics.

    We want to get two takes now on where things could go after this latest stalemate.

    We begin with a man who has served in many key roles in Washington, Leon Panetta. He served as defense secretary under President Obama. He was also chief of staff for President Clinton during the longest government shutdown to date.

    Leon Panetta, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, today saw yet another breakdown in a meeting between the president and Democratic leaders. As somebody who's overseen and lived through a shutdown in the past, how do you see what's going on now?

  • Leon Panetta:

    Well, Judy, I think — I think we all have to begin with a basic premise here, which is that there is no justifiable reason, whether it's a wall or whether it's a war, to justify shutting the government down.

    The government needs to continue to function. The American people are entitled to the services that are provided, and we shouldn't use federal employees as pawns in this kind of political conflict.

    I think, ultimately, there's only one way to get out of this mess, which is to reopen the government, open it on a short-term basis, if necessary, and then sit down and negotiate on some kind of comprehensive approach to border security.

    That's the only sane way to try to get out of this mess.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, right now, President Trump is saying he won't do that. Should the Democrats give in some way in order to get the president to agree to open the government and then talk about the border?

  • Leon Panetta:

    I think the most important — important issue right now is not to keep the government shut down. There's no reason for that.

    People are not getting paychecks. Their families are hurting. We are punishing innocent people in this process. There's no excuse for that. So reopen the government, and then I think the Democrats ought to commit themselves to sitting down and negotiating on border security.

    There are a lot of areas on border security where there's agreement, the need for technology, the need for personnel, the need for judges, the need for humanitarian assistance. As far as a wall is concerned, Republicans and Democrats in the past have agreed on physical barriers to be used in key areas along the border.

    I think there are ways to resolve this, but the president is going to have to say that he is willing to negotiate without necessarily getting the money he wants for a wall. And I think he's put himself in a very difficult position, where it's the wall or nothing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So when Speaker Pelosi, in response to the president reportedly in that meeting at the White House today, when the president asked her, if I agree to open the government, we talk about this in a month about what to do about border security, the border wall, would you be willing to do that, and she said no, was that the right answer?

  • Leon Panetta:

    Well, my understanding from those that were present was he asked, if I open up the government in 30 days, would you be willing to agree on a wall, and she said no.

    She's always made her position pretty clear with regards to a wall, as have the Democrats and has — and, frankly, there are Republicans opposed to a wall approach. If the president could sell a wall, he would have done it the last two years with a Republican majority in both the House and the Senate. He's been unable to do that.

    So the issue is going to come down to, do we want real border security to deal with the crisis along the border? There are ways to do this, ways both sides can agree to. But the issue of a wall, if it's about a concrete wall on the border, I think that basically shuts down any possibility of negotiation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I guess the president is now talking about a steel — a wall made out of steel.

    But, Leon Panetta, how do you — right now, you have got both sides saying, I'm not budging anymore, this is it. What happened — how long can this go on?

  • Leon Panetta:

    Well, having gone through this when I was chief of staff to Bill Clinton, we went through a lot of negotiations. We were not able to arrive at any consensus. The government shut down.

    And, ultimately, what happened is that the political impact of that shutdown and the people that were affected began to really hurt the Republican leadership in the Congress. And I think the same thing's going to happen here.

    You cannot have people losing their paychecks, you cannot have people hurting with their families, you cannot have people going without food, not able to get loans, you cannot allow that to continue to happen, and not have a political impact from that taking place.

    When that happens, then the president and the Republicans and the Democrats as well will agree that it's time to open up the government, and then get back to the business of the country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, that's exactly what I want to ask you about, because, right now, the polls are showing Republicans are overwhelmingly with the president on this.

    I saw 77 percent of Republicans — I was just looking at a poll — want additional border fencing. The president is listening to his base, listening to Republicans.

  • Leon Panetta:

    I think there's no question that he has support along with his base, but the question is, what is it we need in order to ensure good border security? That is the fundamental question.

    We all agree on the crisis. So what are the steps needed in order to get border security? And, yes, we agree on technology, we agree on personnel, we agree on judges, we agree on other steps that need to be taken.

    With regards to a wall, I think those who are experts with regards to security have said, yes, we can use some physical barriers, yes, we can use some fencing. I think there should be some agreement along those lines.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Leon Panetta:

    But, as to a wall, I just don't think that there's going to be any support for that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very quickly, Leon Panetta, if you were here today in Washington, what would you do if you were at the White House as chief of staff or on Capitol Hill?

  • Leon Panetta:

    You know, I understand the politics. Everybody's painted themselves into a corner.

    But I think it's the responsibility of the president of the United States to protect this country, and it isn't just about the security along the border. It's about the operations of government on behalf of the people of this country.

    The purpose of government is not to punish our people. It is to help our people, and that's why he should take steps to open up the government and then get a commitment from the Democrats to negotiate on border security. That's the best way out of this mess.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, we thank you.

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