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'It's Not Impossible': Mediator George Mitchell On Shutdown Solutions

President Donald Trump arrives to speak about the partial government shutdown, immigration and border security in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, in Washington, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. (Alex Brandon/AP)
President Donald Trump arrives to speak about the partial government shutdown, immigration and border security in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, in Washington, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. (Alex Brandon/AP)

The government shutdown continues into its fifth week. The president made a new offer in a Saturday night speech. But so far, Democrats say they’re unimpressed.

Former senator, former Senate majority leader and former Northern Ireland special peace envoy George Mitchell knows what it’s like to deal with intractable conflicts, where the parties are dug in and sworn to fight until victory. So who better to listen to today than he?

Monday, On Point: Sen. George Mitchell and the search for a way out of this government shutdown.

Interview Highlights

On the forces driving disagreement and the current shutdown

"It's very hard to find a solution that can be a win for everyone. That is, everyone can say, 'We did it,' when you have only a single issue: build a wall or don't build a wall. In that case, you have ultimately a complete victor and a complete loser. So I think the way to solve major problems like this, and this is the approach I took in Northern Ireland, was to broaden the base and to include all relevant issues. So if you have a dozen issues on the table, then you can kind of maneuver around and find a solution that everybody can have something that they can go out and say, 'We prevailed.' I think a broad discussion on all immigration issues is genuinely relevant. It is true that the system is dysfunctional, but keep in mind that this is a repetition of history. There is no immigration that can last forever in a society which is changing, growing, in a world which is changing, growing, and you have to view this as an issue that must from time to time be taken up."

On those who are skeptical of negotiation

"Keep in mind that, for people who think, 'Well it's not possible given the divisions in our country,' in 2013, four Democrat and four Republican senators agreed on comprehensive immigration legislation, not perfect in anyone's mind but a reasonable compromise. It got 68 votes in the Senate, substantial numbers of both Democrats and Republicans, but it was not brought up in the House because the Speaker wouldn't bring it up, in part because it would've passed had it come up in the House. There were enough votes to have it, and the Republicans then operated in the House under the rule that said you don't bring a bill up unless a majority of Republicans are for it. So, precisely because it would've passed with a bipartisan vote, it wasn't brought up. If you can now get back to a full negotiation, you might be able to get a bill that attracts enough support for both sides."

"The fact is, the damage being done to our society — not just to the millions of individuals involved, but to the economy, to the whole notion of democracy and its functioning — is a real and substantial thing although difficult to measure and quantify."

Sen. George Mitchell

On the stakes of the shutdown

"The 800,000 federal workers out of work and not getting paid, I think, serve as a — not comparable — but a relevant deadline for the president and for the Democratic leadership. This just can't keep going as it is. When you get into this kind of squabble at this level, I think everyone loses. I think the president is losing support, I think the Democratic leaders are probably losing support ... I think there is a pressure for them to move forward.

"[Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] was dealt a serious negative blow a couple of weeks ago when he got the Senate to pass, unanimously, legislation in the belief, he thought, that the president would sign it. Then, between the passage and the signing, the president took some flack from members of the more conservative wing of his party, he changed his mind and so Sen. McConnell went into a defensive and really kind of silent mode for a couple of weeks. I think this now gives him the opportunity to re-assert himself, to re-inject himself into the process. I do think he will present the president's bill, but I think what he's doing, and it's happened historically many times, is he's not just going to present the president's bill. He's going to add to it features that he thinks will make it difficult for Democrats to vote against it — relief for hurricanes and other disasters, pick out some in a state of a particular Democrat who may be vulnerable and kind of dare them to vote against that. So I think he'll present a bill loaded with other attractive items to try to get this passed and to take center stage. I don't think it's likely to pass, but it could serve, as Sen. [Mark] Warner suggested, as the basis for further negotiation."

On his experience from Northern Ireland

"I was there about five years, during which I chaired three separate sets of discussions, there were 10 political parties in Northern Ireland, the governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and not once ever, never, in the years I was there, was I able to get all 12 of them into the same room at the same time. But what I did was I reached out to them. If seven of them came to a meeting, well, then, I'd go see the other three, in their offices or I'd call them on the phone and invite them in, just to try keep it alive. But I emphasize — the difference is this, when people are dying, when bombs are going off and there are regular assassinations and cruel beatings, it creates an intense public pressure, that doesn't exist in a peaceful, hopefully peaceful society, like ours. People may go a little bit longer in holding onto their views in this country.

"The fact is, the damage being done to our society — not just to the millions of individuals involved, but to the economy, to the whole notion of democracy and its functioning — is a real and substantial thing although difficult to measure and quantify. I think there is an imperative on all concerned to figure out some way to bring this to a conclusion. And it's not impossible — this is not rocket science. This is people getting together and working out legislation in a democratic and peaceful society."

"I think the president is losing support, I think the Democratic leaders are probably losing support ... I think there is a pressure for them to move forward."

Sen. George Mitchell

On what the politicians involved need in order to reach agreement

"You have to figure out a way in which you can come up with comprehensive legislation — look, the president says he's doing this for border security. Everybody is for border security. The question is, can you come up with a series of proposals that, everyone can come out and say, 'We've gotten an improved border security.' That should not be beyond the capacity for everyone involved."

On public versus private negotiation

"One of the great challenges that I faced in Northern Ireland, and the Middle East, and which our leaders face today is the competition of values between the public right to know, conducting public business in public, and the necessity that some discussions and negotiations must occur in private and in secrecy. It's very hard to do it, particularly in a country like ours where we have an open system, social media, everybody's a reporter, everybody's got a camera to take your picture wherever you are, record what you're saying, wants to know what you said three minutes ago, and yet some negotiations have to occur in private and secrecy. That's the only way this could function. It's a tremendous challenge, there's a tension between the two. I faced it often when I was Senate Majority Leader, and when I served in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, but you have to accept the reality that not every bit of governing must occur in the public for everyone to see. It's important that the leaders reserve the right and act on it to do some discussion in complete privacy and secrecy if nothing else to lay the foundation for an ultimate agreement."

Alex Schroeder adapted this interview for the web.

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