Lamar Alexander, a Republican, represents Tennessee in the U.S. Senate. He is chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
In the summer of 2015, President Barack Obama invited Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and me to meet with him at the White House. She is the ranking Democrat on the Senate’s education committee, and I am its chairman. Our conversation that day in the Oval Office offers a lesson for resolving the current partial government shutdown.
The president wanted to talk about our work in Congress to fix No Child Left Behind. If you think the current impasse on border security is complicated, try setting federal policy for 100,000 public schools. It’s like 100,000 spectators agreeing on which play to call at a University of Tennessee football game: Everyone is an expert. Add to that the opinions of governors and teachers unions, and issues of federalism, civil rights, overtesting and the Common Core curriculum. And we had a divided government — a Democratic president and Republican-majority Congress.
On that day, Obama told Murray and me there were three things that had to be in the legislation for him to sign it. I told the president that if he would not oppose the bill as it made its way through Congress, those three things would be in the final bill. On Dec. 10, 2015, Obama signed our legislation into law, calling it a “Christmas miracle” even though there were plenty of other provisions in it he didn’t like. “You kept your word,” he told me. “So did you,” I said.
Why, as a Republican, did I agree to a Democratic president’s requests with which I did not concur? Because I have read the Constitution and understand that if the president does not sign legislation, it does not become law. On the other hand, I also knew that the final law would be what the Wall Street Journal called “the largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter-century” — repealing the Common Core mandate, dismantling a national school board and restoring local control of schools. We worked on it for a long time, listened to each other and came up with a result that 85 senators voted for, that the National Governors Association and teachers unions both supported, and that provides stable federal policy on schools for years to come.
Nobody ever suggested shutting down the government to get his or her way. We knew we were elected to get a result if we could.
What is the lesson in that story for today? First, Democrats should recognize now, as I did with Obama in 2015, that if an elected president has a legitimate objective, they should bend over backward to accommodate it — if they want a result. As for President Trump, he should be specific and reliable, as Obama was in 2015 when he told us he needed three things, and, after Congress passed legislation that included the president’s requests, he signed the bill into law.
Since Trump made it clear he won’t sign any legislation to reopen the federal government without some increase to funding for border security, here are three options for where we could go from here:
Go small: Give the president the $1.6 billion he asked for in this year’s budget request, which the bipartisan Senate Appropriations Committee approved. Provide an additional $1 billion to improve border security at ports of entry, which everyone concedes is needed.
Go bigger: Pass the bill that 54 senators voted for last February, which combined a solution for children brought to the United States illegally (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA) and $25 billion in appropriated funding for border security over 10 years. The bill failed only because of last-minute White House opposition.
Go really big: Begin the new Congress by creating a legal immigration system that secures our borders and defines legal status for those already here. In 2013, 68 senators — including all 54 Democrats — voted for such a bill, but the House refused to take it up. That bill included more than $40 billion and many other provisions to secure our borders.
Government shutdowns should be as off-limits to budget negotiations as chemical weapons are to warfare. Nevertheless, we are stuck in one. Resolving it by going Really Big on immigration could be Trump’s Nixon-to-China, Reagan-to-the-Berlin-Wall moment in history.