News Brief: Democrats' Bills Don't Include Border Wall Funding, Israeli Settlements
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're in a rare moment in Washington, D.C., when President Trump is not the lead news story. Instead it's the Democrats who've taken over the House of Representatives for the first time in eight years.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
For the first time in two years, Democrats have the power to make a move. Under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, they voted to reopen the government and included none of the money President Trump demanded for a border wall.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is there any situation in which you would accept even a dollar of wall funding?
NANCY PELOSI: A dollar?
PELOSI: A dollar, $1 - yeah, $1.
INSKEEP: But she didn't sound very eager to go much higher.
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PELOSI: It's a wall between reality and his constituents, his supporters. He does not want them to know what he's doing to Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security in his budget proposal. He does not want them to know what he's doing to clean air and clean water and the rest in his department of interior and of EPA. He does not want them to know how he is hurting them. So he keeps the subject on the wall. He's a master of diversion.
INSKEEP: Pelosi spoke as new lawmakers from both parties settled into the Capitol. Combat veterans, many women, people of color and others posed for photos - quite dramatic scenes. Late in the day, President Trump emerged from the White House.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I have never had so much support as I have in the last week over my stance for border security, for border control and for, frankly, the wall or the barrier.
INSKEEP: Surveys have shown the demand for a border wall to be unpopular, though it is favored by many of his core supporters.
MARTIN: All right, so we are joined now by NPR's lead political editor, Domenico Montanaro, to get the latest on the shutdown, when it's going to end. He's got all the answers, right, Domenico?
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: All of them, always.
MARTIN: All of them, all the answers. OK...
MONTANARO: How's it going, Rachel?
MARTIN: It goes well. So Nancy Pelosi, one of the first items of business, passing this package of bills to keep the government open, no border wall funding. Is this going to go anywhere?
MONTANARO: Not really because Republicans aren't going to take it up in the Senate. And the president said that he would veto it if it passed Congress. So we're back where we've been. Nancy Pelosi says that what passed was, quote, "a mature way out" for the president because she's not giving in on the border wall. As we heard her say, she might take a dollar but that's about all.
And this measure would open the government back up, funding several agencies for a year. It would kick the fight over border funding another month, tied to funding for the Department of Homeland Security. Democrats point out this was basically what Republicans were set to pass before the president reversed course in December.
MARTIN: Well, Republicans up until this point, led by Mitch McConnell, have been fairly unified on this, saying, we don't want to take up anything the president's not going to sign. But there appear to be some cracks in that front right now.
MONTANARO: There are a couple cracks. At least two Republican senators are calling for funding the government without this border wall fight. That's Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine. Gardner said that Congress needs to take further action on border security, but that work should be done when the government is fully open. Collins said that the government basically should not be held hostage to this debate over border security. Oh, and by the way, Rachel, both of them are up for re-election in 2020.
MONTANARO: And we've seen Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell want to protect a lot of his members who are up for re-election. But so far, he's stayed on the sidelines. And a lot of people think he might be one way out of this because he would be needed to kind of move the impasse forward.
MARTIN: So President Trump came out yesterday. It was supposed to be the first press briefing, with Sarah Sanders, of the new year - instead a surprise visit by the president. What did he say?
MONTANARO: Yeah, it was not a press briefing. Instead, we had the president come out - seemed to be a direct response to Pelosi returning to the speakership, congratulated her but dug his heels in and tried to make the case again for the border wall funding.
MARTIN: All right, NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thank you. We appreciate it.
MONTANARO: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: At one point, the president said if Congress doesn't give him the money that he wants to build a border wall, more than $5 billion, he'll just have the U.S. military do it. The president appears to be moving ahead with that idea.
INSKEEP: Yeah, the Pentagon is sending more U.S. troops to the border. Their job is to build or upgrade 160 miles of fencing. It's along the border in Arizona and California. Now, bear in mind, those two states are already mostly fenced. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan described the deployment.
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PATRICK SHANAHAN: The Army Corps of Engineers is dialed in on doing this cost effectively, quickly and with the right amount of urgency as to where we can build additional stand-up walls quickly and then get after the threat. The threat is real.
INSKEEP: Troops will also provide medical care to migrant families.
MARTIN: NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, joins us this morning. Good morning, my friend.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Rachel.
MARTIN: So how many troops are we talking about here?
BOWMAN: You know, at this point we don't know. And here's a challenge for the administration. There are about 2,300 active-duty troops along the border together with about 2,000 National Guard troops. Now, the deployment for the active troops wraps up at the end of the month. So they're going to have to make some decisions. Do we extend the current troops? Do we send more troops?
And I'm told that for the fencing portion of this, you're looking at more combat engineers. They could possibly be sent. And also Homeland Security's (inaudible) more medical units as well. Of course, two children died along the border in the custody of U.S. officials, so they need additional help - and also aviation units to provide surveillance along the border. So they're going to have to make some decisions pretty quickly because again, the deployment wraps up at the end of the month.
MARTIN: Right. And this - this is in addition to the U.S. troops who were already sent down there to manage the so-called caravan of migrants, right?
BOWMAN: That's right.
MARTIN: So it's also happening, obviously, during a partial government shutdown. So where are they going to get the money for this? Is this coming out of the Pentagon's previous budget?
BOWMAN: They're getting it from the Pentagon budget. And also, the Pentagon has not shut down. They're still - they're still working, as we see, along the border. So yeah, there's some grumbling about this at the Pentagon. It's a waste of money, or this is not what you use active-duty troops for. This is generally a National Guard mission. So privately, there is some grumbling about this. But they say, listen, this is a legal order from the president. We'll carry it out.
MARTIN: You mention decisions are going to have to be made soon. Do we have any idea, at this point, when - when we could see troops there on the border actually reinforcing fencing?
BOWMAN: Well, I don't have a sense of exactly when they're going to start this mission. But I'm told it could take several months. And this is, you know - talking about a lot of mileage here. So this could, you know, require a substantial amount of troops.
One official told me a few thousand troops perhaps. Another said, well, the current troops there could at least start this effort as you bring more troops in. But at this point, I know the Pentagon is working on this, planning this. And we don't have any specifics on it right yet.
MARTIN: All right, NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman for us this morning. Tom, thanks. We appreciate it.
BOWMAN: OK, you're welcome.
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MARTIN: All right, next we're going to turn to Israel, where thousands of new homes for Israeli settlers are being planned in the occupied West Bank.
INSKEEP: Most countries denounce Israeli settlements because they're spread out across land that Palestinians demand for their own state. The Trump administration has been tolerant, though, of Israeli settlements. In fact, a watchdog group says there's been a building frenzy in the settlements since President Trump took office.
MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Estrin has been visiting those areas in the West Bank. And he is on the line now. Good morning, Daniel.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: What can you tell us about - about these construction plans?
ESTRIN: Well, last week Israel advanced plans to build nearly 2,800 new settlement homes in the West Bank. And the big picture here, Rachel, is that in the last two years, during Trump's presidency, Israel has pushed forward a lot of settlement construction plans. And it's a big difference from the last two years of the Obama presidency.
This anti-settlement watchdog group you referenced, Peace Now, tracks these numbers. And it says that in Trump's first year of office, the number of housing plans that Israel advanced was about 2 1/2 times higher than the number in the last year of the Obama administration.
MARTIN: So, I mean, it's hard to overstate just how sensitive this issue is, right?
MARTIN: I mean, so much of it plays into the history of the region, the identity of the peoples. Can you just explain kind of contextually how important this is for Israelis and Palestines - Palestinians, rather?
ESTRIN: Settlements are at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are spread out in the West Bank. That's where Palestinians live, and that's where Palestinians want an independent state. And most countries want to see Israel give up at least most of the West Bank for Palestinians to have their own state. And they say that's the only way that there will be a solution to this long-running conflict. And the more Israel builds up its settlements, the more entrenched Israel becomes in that land.
MARTIN: So as we noted, you've been out visiting some of these very areas where Israel has - has made these plans, advanced the settlement construction. What have you seen there?
ESTRIN: Well, this morning I visited a small village, a Palestinian village called Nahalin. And across the valley is one of the biggest Israeli settlements. And it's growing. You can see the construction vehicles. You can hear the bang, bang, bang of the construction vehicles. They're building a new neighborhood to expand the settlement.
And I was surprised they were even working on a Friday, which is a weekend day here. And it's one of three settlements that surround this village where Israel has recently announced new planned housing. So the Palestinian mayor of the village said he feels he's being choked. He says this is unjust.
And then I drove to the settlement next door. And I met a devout Jewish Israeli there. And he said, well, this construction is good. God promised us this land in the Torah. This is our land. This is not their land. Palestinians don't deserve this land. Arabs have plenty of countries. This - there's only one Jewish state.
INSKEEP: Daniel, I want to note that you said that Israeli settlement construction plans advanced during the Obama administration and the Trump administration - just a little bit slower in the Obama administration. Is the point of view of the Israeli government becoming essentially what that settler told you, that no matter what any U.S. administration says, they're going to go ahead as much as they can?
ESTRIN: Well, I think a lot of - especially in the - in the settler community here, they believe that Trump is giving them a green light, whereas Obama gave them a yellow light. I remember being at a Trump election victory party in 2016. Settler activists were drinking Trump-branded vodka. They were hoping Trump would allow this to happen. And it seems - the numbers suggest that it is.
MARTIN: All right, NPR's Daniel Estrin for us this morning on these new plans. Israel is planning to construct new Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Daniel, thanks. We appreciate you sharing your reporting with us.
ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.