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Sen. Leahy says border security agreement is ‘a good deal for America’

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., played a key role in brokering the bipartisan agreement lawmakers have arrived at to secure border security funding and avoid a second government shutdown. He speaks with Judy Woodruff about how members of both parties “worked extraordinarily hard” over the past several weeks and why he thinks physical barriers make sense in some places along the border but not others.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to our top story, the bipartisan agreement reached by lawmakers to avoid another partial government shutdown.

    I spoke a short time ago with Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. He played a key role in brokering the compromise.

    I asked him if Democrats are happy with the outcome.

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.:

    Well, in a compromise, nobody gets everything they want.

    This was something that Republicans and Democrats have worked extraordinarily hard on, both the House and the Senate. We did the last couple weeks almost every evening, through the weekends, and finally came to a final agreement in my office in the Capitol last evening.

    We all had to give something, but we have got a good deal for America. And it might not be a great deal for one person or another politically, but we want to get the best deal for America.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Senator, we understand the report is that there is $1.37 billion in funding for a border barrier, something like 55 miles of barrier.

    President Trump is saying that's not enough, that he plans to use other methods to come up with money, maybe, they're saying, as much as $1.8 billion in addition to this from other sources. Is this something Democrats are going to go along with?

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.:

    Well, the president also gave his solemn word over and over again during the campaign that it wouldn't make any difference how much they spent, because Mexico would pay for it.

    Well, that never happened. Then he gave his word there would be a solid, coast-to-coast stone wall or cement wall. And, of course, that's not going to happen.

    I think what we tried do is put barriers where it makes sense, but do all the other things that make sense. For example, most of the drugs come through ports of entry. Have better detection equipment, X-ray machines and others to detect it. A wall won't do anything to stop that.

    Well-trained agent and equipment can do it. We're trying to be realistic. He wants to be rhetorical. I will take realism to rhetoric any time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But if the president does take funds from — that are designated for other sources and uses that money instead to build a border, a physical barrier at the border, are Democrats going to try to stop him?

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.:

    Well, he doesn't realize it, but it's very limited what he can transfer money from. What's he going to do, take it from the military, and then turn around and say the military needs more money?

    Is he going to take it from infrastructure or repairing our roads that are in bad shape? Is he going the take it from opioids and then say, we have got to do something about the opioid crisis?

    No, the areas are very limited. And if he goes into the Homeland Security bill, is he going the take it from the electronic equipment, the night-vision, all of the other things that our border security people tell us they really need, say, no, I'm going to put this on a wall, where it doesn't make any sense?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But my question is, are Democrats going to let that happen?

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.:

    Well, we would certainly object to it, but I think Republicans would, too.

    You have to reprogram the money. I don't know many Republicans or Democrats who are willing to reprogram the money. And if he takes it anyway, then he's got a real court challenge.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator, Democrats earlier were saying they wouldn't go along with a dollar for a physical barrier. We know Speaker Pelosi said that. Now it's up to $1.37 billion.

    Republicans are saying Democrats caved.

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.:

    No, we gave him the same amount of money we said last year. And, of course, the president shut down the government, costing America $10 billion, because we offered around 1.3.

    Now, a month-and-a-half later, after all the stress and strain and family disruptions the shutdown cost, and the $10 billion to $11 billion it cost our country, he says, OK, I'm going to accept what you gave us last time.

    No, the Democrats have — we have always insisted on this ballpark. They have always insisted on $5 billion. We compromised last night in my office to the figure we have.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Senator, you also know that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had said not a dollar, nothing for a border.

    And I guess my question is, if that was — if it was going to be the position you would go along with this much money, why not do it earlier? Why go through the shutdown?

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.:

    We did it earlier. We voted for it earlier. And he still had the shutdown.

    So, when the Republicans were in charge of both the House and Senate, that's what went through almost unanimously in the Senate. He still shut down the government.

    There is nothing that — if he's going to shut down the government for the amount the Republicans gave him, I don't know why Speaker Pelosi or anybody else should be saying, oh, here, we're sorry, we don't want to upset you, we will give you more money.

    The fact is, that's the amount of money everybody said he would get. That's the amount of money he's going to get.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator, from the other side of the political spectrum, liberal Democrats, like New York Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, today, she was tweeting.

    She said: "This deal is giving money to a government agency that separates children from their families."

    She wrote, she said: "Trump is not building a wall. He's building detention camps for kids, and we're falling for it."

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.:

    Well, I wish she had spent some time in the committees and listened to the debate by both Republicans and Democrats.

    It's more complex than that. We're actually cutting the detention beds from around 5,000 to closer to 4,000. The other thing we need very, very much are immigration judges, so that we can expedite the screening of these people. And we put that money in there.

    Now, she or anybody is free to vote against the money for opioids, vote against the immigration judges, vote against the limitations on the wall. I'm not going to criticize anybody, Democrat or Republican, who votes for or against it.

    But this is something that Republicans and Democrats came together. We agreed on this deal late last night, and I think it's a good one.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who was part of the final negotiations on this border agreement, thank you, Senator.

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.:

    Thank you, Judy.

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