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Senate Republican signals opening for contractor back pay, in critical hour of negotiation

While a tentative bipartisan agreement exists to fund the government and avoid a second shutdown, more work must be accomplished quickly to meet Friday's deadline. Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., talks to Judy Woodruff about the outlook for President Trump to sign the bill if it passes and whether Republicans would support back pay for federal contractors affected by the shutdown.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to the negotiations over border security spending and another looming federal government shutdown.

    For that, I spoke just a short time ago to Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota. He is the Senate majority whip, his party's second highest ranking position.

    Senator Thune, thank you very much for joining us.

    So, first of all, how confident are you that President Trump is going to seen on to this agreement?

  • Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.:

    Well, Good evening, Judy.

    Pretty confident, but,you know, of course, until we actually have the final text, and the president comes out and says something definitively, I think we're just going to wait and let him make that announcement himself, but the indications are positive.

    I think that he probably realizes this is the best deal he could get under the circumstances. And the negotiations have concluded. We have got to avoid another government shutdown, which would happen at midnight Friday, if this deal isn't agreed to.

    So I'm hopeful that the president will come around and at some point announce his intention to get behind this, but, like everybody else, he wants to see the details.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, as we all know, the president didn't get as much money as he wanted for a physical barrier, a wall. And he's saying he's going to find that money elsewhere.

    How much other money is available to him, and from where?

  • Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.:

    I think that what they're talking about doing — and, of course, this would be not in the context of an emergency declaration, which would be a different, entirely, conversation, but I think in terms of unobligated balances, reprogramming that could occur, that the administration could find, the dollars that they could move around a little bit, I'm not sure exactly what that number is.

    We have heard estimates, but I think it would significantly increase the amount that he could put toward border security. How much would go toward a wall, I don't know, but I think the hard number that we know about is the one that's in there. And that's the 1.4 or thereabout billion dollars that he can use for the physical structure that would be along the border.

    But there's more to it, obviously, than that. And I know that he's interested in getting as much funding as he can to build as much of that structure as possible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we have been hearing perhaps as much as a couple of billion dollars the president would be trying to find elsewhere.

    Do you have any idea where the money could come from?

  • Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.:

    Well, there are several accounts that have been mentioned, and — but, you know, I don't know exactly where they're talking about going to get it.

    There, of course, has been some talk about Defense Department dollars and perhaps being able to reprogram some of those. I think, in the end, to get significant amounts of money, he would probably use the emergency declaration.

    I don't know exactly what he's going to do at this point. And I think it's probably anybody's guess. But I know that his administration is looking carefully at these various accounts to try to determine if there are additional dollars that could be added to the amount that's going to be appropriated by Congress.

    How much that is and where exactly it comes from, I hate to at this point speculate about that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is that something congressional Republicans would support?

  • Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.:

    It depends a lot on where it comes from, and, again, and which authority he would use.

    A lot of our colleagues are very sympathetic to what the president's trying to accomplish. They want to ensure that he has dollars to allocate to border security and to deal with the crisis there.

    But, at the same time, you know, what authority gets used, where the dollars might be moved around from will have a lot to do with, I think, the kind of support that he might enjoy among Republicans in the Senate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Separate question, Senator.

    Do you see this agreement as expanding ICE detention, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and, if so, by how much?

  • Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.:

    I think — and, of course, there have been a lot of discussion about the numbers, and both sides have talked about a slightly different number, but I think it's all in the ballpark of the 40,000 to 50,000 bed range, which would be comparable to what we have today, with some flexibility to go up maybe a little bit beyond that.

    I have seen numbers in the range of 58,000 or so. I think the flexibility is important, but I think in terms of the overall amount that would be allocated toward detention of illegals who are here and criminal aliens in some cases, it is comparable to what we're looking at today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How much of a priority is that for you, Senator?

  • Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.:

    Well, I think it's important that we not cap it.

    I was very concerned about the proposal the Democrats put forward that would have, in law, capped that amount. I think previous administrations have had the flexibility, based upon what the need is, to be able to move some money around and make sure that there's enough, you know, detention beds for that population.

    And I think it's an issue that's a part of this discussion. I think, for a lot of our members, the physical structure, the barrier, is probably the number one priority, but this obviously is a close second in the minds of a lot of people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Senator, still another subject, and that is Democrats are saying they would like to find money to give back pay to federal contract employees who were affected by the government shutdown.

    They are pushing for this. Where do Republicans, where do you stand on that?

  • Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.:

    Well, I — what I have maintained throughout this entire process is, when you have a government shutdown, nobody wins, and there are a lot of people who are harmed by that. And you want to make sure that you do everything you can to make them whole.

    And I guess I would include contractors in that group. The question, I guess, is how best to do that. People who enter into contracts with the government aren't always working, and would they have been working? What's the duration of some of those contracts? There are a lot of questions that I think have to be answered to figure out how you would reimburse or make whole government contractors.

    There is a reason they're contractors. They're not as federal employees. They're not full-time federal workers. They are working on contract, and sometimes those contracts go in spurts. There may be times when they're heavily engaged in some activity on behalf of the federal government, but at other times they're not.

    So I think making those determinations makes this a little bit more this a little bit more complicated, but I think there is an interest certainly among a lot of members on both sides of the aisle in seeing that people who are — depend upon the federal government and were harmed by the shutdown, that they be taken care of.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Republicans would be open to the idea, you think?

  • Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.:

    Well, I think there are — yes, I think there are Republicans who are open to that idea, yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, when do you think this could pass the Congress, if — assuming it keeps moving as it is?

  • Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.:

    If we get the paperwork filed by late this afternoon or early evening, it would set up, I think, potentially votes tomorrow in the Senate.

    We could move first. The House could move first. I don't think that's been determined yet. But if the Senate did move first, you know, we have to have consent to do that. And if we have consent, we could move fairly quickly and send it to the House, and they could process it sometime tomorrow.

    But that assumes, again, that the paperwork gets wrapped up, and that they get the details, the actual legislative text, made available to members for them to have an opportunity to review. And, hopefully, that will happen soon.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And then we wait to see what the president does.

  • Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.:

    And then we will wait and see.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, Senator John Thune, thank you very much.

  • Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.:

    Thanks, Judy.

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