RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump had this to say before leaving for the border today.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I have the absolute right to declare a national emergency, the lawyers have so advised me. I'm not prepared to do that yet. But if I have to, I will.
MARTIN: It's unclear how much his border visit will actually change anyone's mind. A meeting between the president and Democratic congressional leaders yesterday ended with the president walking out. Here's how Vice President Mike Pence explained it.
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VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: He asked Speaker Pelosi that if he opened things up quickly - if he reopened the government quickly, would she be willing to agree to funding for a wall or a barrier on the southern border? And when she said no, the president said goodbye.
MARTIN: Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had a slightly different version of events.
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CHUCK SCHUMER: And then, a few minutes later, he sort of slammed the table. And when Leader Pelosi said she didn't agree with the wall, he just walked out and said we have nothing to discuss.
MARTIN: So it is now Day 20 of the partial federal government shutdown, and both sides are still stuck into their respective positions. Mercedes Schlapp is White House director of strategic communications, and she joins us now to talk about the view from the White House on all this.
Good morning, Mercedes.
MERCEDES SCHLAPP: Good morning. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Thanks for being here.
So the president's going to the border today in Texas to make his case again for a border wall. Moments ago, we spoke with Republican Congressman Will Hurd, who represents the district containing more than 200 miles of border with Mexico. And this is what he told us about his conversations with border agents.
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WILL HURD: They do say there are some physical barriers that's needed, but I've never had anybody tell me that building a wall from sea to shining sea is something that they actually need.
MARTIN: How is President Trump getting such different information about the efficacy of a border wall than the congressman who represents the biggest border district in the country?
SCHLAPP: Actually, he's not because if you hear clearly what Congressman Will Hurd mentioned, he said that they don't want to build a wall from sea to shining sea. The president has not said he's going to build a wall from - or a physical barrier from sea to shining sea. Our goal has been to listen to the needs of the Border Patrol agents. That is why we have identified the 5.6 billion which would ensure operational control of the southern border. That means that it would be about 238 miles that would be with physical barrier that would be built and as well that this takes into account the 10 top priorities that the Custom Border Patrol (ph) agents have identified as a real need where we know we can place physical barrier there and as we know the numbers show that the walls work. And so I think that's the key here - is the fact that no one is saying we're going to build it from sea to shining sea. But as Congressman Hurd said, the wall - these physical barriers do work in...
MARTIN: He actually didn't go on to say whether or not physical barriers are as effective as a combination of technology, better communications, more manpower on the border. And that's what - Democrats also make that case, that it needs to be everything and that to seize so specifically on a border wall doesn't make sense - definitely not for $5.7 billion.
SCHLAPP: Well, interestingly enough, Rachel, we had Senator Schumer who has said recently that the walls are ineffective. However, you look back at videos and comments that he has made where he has said that physical barriers - that we should secure our border with physical barriers. So I feel that there is a sense of almost a two-sidedness of where the Democrats are on this issue. Look. We have come with a good-faith offer. The president and the negotiations, which are being led by Vice President Pence, have put together a proposal that contains Democrat requests.
MARTIN: But the...
SCHLAPP: And so we're trying to find that compromise. And sadly, they just simply refuse to negotiate and refuse to counteroffer.
MARTIN: So as you know, Democrats' position is that it's the White House that's refusing to negotiate - not willing to budge on the $5.7 billion number - and insisting that the government not reopen. House Democrats passed a bill yesterday to reopen parts of the government, including Treasury and the IRS that have to deal with Tax Day coming up. Eight Republicans, including Congressman Hurd, voted with Democrats on that bill. How do you convince the American people that the shutdown is worth it when not even all Republican lawmakers think that?
SCHLAPP: Look. Unfortunately, we have our federal workers who are stuck in the middle of this. We need the Democrats to come to the table and come with a counteroffer. They have not offered us anything. The only thing they can...
MARTIN: They want to reopen government and continue to...
SCHLAPP: No, they...
SCHLAPP: See, what Nancy Pelosi said yesterday at that meeting - and I was at that meeting - the president said, OK, Nancy, if we reopen the government, can we get something for border security in 30 days? And Nancy Pelosi said no.
MARTIN: So the president is explicitly...
SCHLAPP: So we literally...
MARTIN: ...Using the shutdown as leverage.
SCHLAPP: We literally are - the Democrats have been exposed. They have no desire to negotiate. Nancy Pelosi made that very clear that she is not going to fund border security despite the fact that our proposal contains elements that the Democrats care about and want. It includes...
MARTIN: Although you know she has said she wants to fund border security. She doesn't want a wall. She doesn't want...
SCHLAPP: Well, we've asked her...
MARTIN: ...A physical barrier.
SCHLAPP: We've asked her several times to ask her what her definition of border security is. And unfortunately, she has not been able to tell us. And so what we have done...
MARTIN: Which is why they argue that the debate should continue. Meanwhile, hundreds...
SCHLAPP: But let me...
MARTIN: ...Of thousands of federal employees aren't going to get a paycheck tomorrow.
SCHLAPP: Let me ask you, Rachel. I mean, do you think that there's a crisis on the border?
MARTIN: Not my job to answer that question.
MARTIN: And I think what - your point is that Democrats do agree that there is a situation that needs to be addressed, that border security needs to be enhanced. So that seems like a point of negotiation. Yet...
SCHLAPP: Absolutely. Absolutely. So let's negotiate. So let's get there. We have been - for weeks - before Christmas, saying, let's negotiate. Let's get to the table, come to a solution. The Democrats refuse to do that.
MARTIN: But people point out it doesn't seem fair to hold the government hostage while tens of thousands of federal workers don't get a paycheck.
SCHLAPP: Look. It is very unfortunate that we have the federal workers caught in the middle of this. And that is why the Democrats need to work with Republicans and the president to reopen this government.
MARTIN: White House director of strategic communications Mercedes Schlapp.
Thanks for your time this morning. We appreciate it.
SCHLAPP: Thank you so much.
MARTIN: White House correspondent Scott Horsley had been listening in to that conversation and joins me now.
Scott, anything in there strike you, any context you want to provide to what we just heard?
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: What's interesting here, Rachel, is just how transparent the White House has been and how the president himself has been about using this partial shutdown of the federal government as leverage to get border wall funding that he campaigned on but which was not included in the White House budget, was not included in the Senate's own appropriation bill, which is something that the president has, you know, repeatedly said Mexico was going to pay for.
MARTIN: So as you just pointed out - I mean, Mercedes Schlapp also seems fairly transparent that the government shutdown is the leverage that they are holding over Democrats. But what incentive do Democrats have to blink here - because the president himself said he owned this?
HORSLEY: Very little.
MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley for us this morning. Scott, thanks so much. We appreciate it.
HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.