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'We Have To Focus People's Attention.' Casey, Democrats To Block Legislation In Shutdown Fight

Alex Brandon

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey appears likely to join other Democrats in voting to block a bill he supports later today – the latest move in a government shutdown triggered by President Donald Trump over border security.

“I support the policy and the bill,” Casey told WESA Monday evening about legislation related to American policy in the Middle East. “Normally I’d vote yes on the bill … But I don’t think we should vote on that until we have a vote on funding the government.”

Casey’s vote would align him with Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and other Democrats, who say they’ll try to block any other legislation until the government is reopened. The move is intended to call out Republican tactics to move forward on Trump’s border wall between the United States and Mexico.

The Senate voted unanimously last month on spending bills that would keep the government open, with an understanding from the White House that Trump would sign off on the bill. But the president changed his mind, insisting that Congress appropriate $5.6 billion to construct a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a cherished part of his 2016 campaign stump speech. Without White House support, the spending measures floundered in the final days of a House that was then still under Republican control.

But the 2018 elections brought Democrats into power in the House, and last week they quickly passed appropriations bills to reopen the government – bills previously passed by Republicans in the Senate. This time, however, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell has blocked those bills, refusing to take up measures the president won’t sign.

“The president is acting irresponsibly, that’s the bottom line,” said Casey, who described the mood in the Senate as “especially grim.”

“Why hold those other [government] agencies hostage to a debate about how best to secure the border?” he asked. “That’s what’s particularly frustrating.”

If Democrats do block other legislation, Republicans may well accuse Senate Democrats of taking hostages themselves. Trump has already attempted to blame Democrats for the shutdown – even though he previously boasted in front of cameras that he would be “proud to shut down the government for border security.”

But with 800,000 federal employees either working without pay or not working at all – and with the prospects for programs like food stamps uncertain – Casey said, “We have to focus people’s attention on the fact that there’s a way to open the government.”

Democrats also plan to be on the floor Tuesday evening, arguing their cause. Casey said that will be “an important moment because … the President will be getting ready to address the nation” with a televised speech from the Oval Office. “We really have to make the case in that window of time.”

Casey’s Republican colleague, Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, has suggested that Democrats bear some responsibility for the impasse. A deal with the White House, he said late last month, “should not be an impossible feat, given that Democrats have voted in the past for a wall. In 2013, every Senate Democrat supported legislation to spend $46 billion on border security and a wall.”

Casey said Monday night that he’s not opposed to a border-protection program that includes a physical barrier in some places.  But he says border-security experts have urged more reliance on technological surveillance and increased border staffing, rather than a sea-to-sea wall constructed over rugged terrain. Even some groups that favor a much tighter immigration policy seem less enamored of the wall than Trump.

Casey scoffed at “this idea that you’re going to start building a concrete wall for hundreds and hundreds of miles, that is paid for by U.S. taxpayers. I don’t think people want to pay for something that doesn’t work."