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Week In Politics: The Government Shutdown, The New Congress And Mitt Romney's Return

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to talk about more, we are going to bring in E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Welcome back.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be back. Happy New Year.

CORNISH: Yes. David Brooks of The New York Times, welcome back. Happy New Year to you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you. Same to you.

CORNISH: All right, so it's not Groundhog Day yet, just feels like it. And so here we are picking up where we left off in the midst of a government shutdown. As we heard Scott Horsley report, the president is willing to let this shutdown go on for however long. David, what's your reaction?

BROOKS: I'm weirdly hopeful 'cause I live in a different country in which people are rational. And there was a near deal a year ago where the - Trump would get 25 billion in border security. And then in exchange, Democrats and others would get immigration reform, notably a path to citizenship for the DREAMers. That seemed to me like a normal good deal. And I still think that's out there. Now the price is down to 5 billion rather than 25 billion, but I still think that's the deal that I think both sides could live with, and it would be a good deal.

Trump won the election. He's going to get his wall. It's a dumb idea, but he won the election on it. And if we can get something out of it, I think that's something that could make both sides happy. The problem is getting the optics right. So neither side appears to be giving in first, but that's matter of optics, not a matter of substance. In substance, there's a deal sitting out there.

CORNISH: Speaking of optics, no one has seen Senator Mitch McConnell really on camera talking about this. E.J., I don't know. What are you hearing about how he's being part of this conversation or not?

DIONNE: Well, I think Mitch McConnell was notably AWOL at the president's news conference. The House Republican leaders were there. McConnell was gone. I think you're seeing a breakup of Republican solidarity very early on. Two Republican senators who are up for re-election in tough states, Susan Collins of Maine being one of them, Cory Gardner of Colorado the other, have already said, let's pass the House bills and open the government. Seven House Republicans broke with the party and voted for the Democratic bills to open the government.

I think there's a lesson here. You can negotiate and compromise about money. You can even negotiate about health plans, but it's very hard to negotiate about a campaign promise that is almost entirely symbolic and that Mexico was supposed to pay for. And as Scott's piece suggested, it's very hard to negotiate with somebody who keeps changing the ground rules. The wall was supposed to be made out of cement. Then it can be made out of steel. Then it sometimes can be just a series of slats. I don't see this easy solution David suggests partly because it seemed to be ruled out of negotiations today.

CORNISH: Well, let me jump in here because...

DIONNE: But maybe that's where they'll end up.

CORNISH: I was surprised at your optimism given your writing (laughter) the last couple of weeks. You do not sound like a person who is expecting a lot out of this Congress or even the government going forward. You say this will be the year of divided government and unprecedented partisan conflict. Why? I mean, how is this different from, say, the multiple government shutdowns we saw during the tea party years?

BROOKS: Well, I'm relatively optimistic about the shutdown. I'm not optimistic about 2019. It's going to be a year of divided government. It's going to be a year in which the membrane that used to surround Donald Trump to protect him from his worst impulses has worn away because he's fired all members of it. And into this world, the indictments - some indictments will come. There are something like a dozen investigations. Presumably there'll be indictments at some point this year. And in my view, Donald Trump will not - he'll try to save himself by delegitimizing our legal system. He'll attack the prosecutors. He'll attack the laws. And we will get into a violent tussle over the very institutions of our Constitution. And so that's a pretty ugly year. And I do think that's what we're in for and we should buckle our seatbelts for. But the wall - the shutdown is going to end. We're going to have a government. And so it seems to me there's a solution out there sooner or later.

CORNISH: E.J., can you talk to us about Nancy Pelosi - you did an interview with her - and kind of like how she's thinking about going forward?

DIONNE: Boy, is Nancy Pelosi in a very good mood these days. I mean, she was - we didn't talk about this, but she's clearly in a good mood because she really faced down a series of opponents who thought they could knock her out as speaker. And while she theoretically only won by a couple of votes, that was actually a landslide because any member who had to vote against her for political purposes was allowed to vote against her. She is pretty optimistic that the Democrats can put forward a series of proposals, on political reform, on improving the healthcare system, on infrastructure, that at the very least will provide a basis for them to say, this is what we would do if we had real power.

CORNISH: Can they do that without what you described an orgy of investigations kind of taking over the news?

DIONNE: Right. Well, she was very careful about that. She said that there would be - without mentioning Robert Mueller in our interview, without mentioning Mueller or the word impeachment, she said there would be appropriate investigations. But she really pushed back hard on the idea that normal congressional accountability for Trump administration policies and individuals should be labeled investigations. She sees this as normal accountability that has not been happening under the Republicans.

CORNISH: Last topic is going to be about freshman lawmakers. One familiar face this week, Mitt Romney, kicks off his term with an Op-Ed and media tour attacking the president. David, what's going on here?

BROOKS: Well, one senator is saying in public what a lot of senators say in private - that character matters. He didn't really disagree with Trump on a lot of policy issues, but he did on the subject of character. And that means there's an internal Republican opposition. I was struck by the way the RNC, the Republican National Committee, or at least some members of it, reacted, which was to try to lock down the primary process. There were moves to create a series of moves so that Trump would have no opposition in the Republican primaries. That suggests they understand that if a fight is Republicans versus Democrats, Republicans will hang together. But if the fight is Republican against Republican with one standing for character and conservatism and the other, Trump, just standing for conservatism or some version of it, then a lot of Republicans would be tempted to go the other way. And so I think they're so sensitive to the fact there could be fissures in this party.

CORNISH: E.J.?

DIONNE: I think Mitt Romney's problem is that he was for Trump before he was against him. Before he was for him. Before he was against him. He's been everywhere when it comes to Trump. And a lot of times, it's whatever suited his interests. But this was a powerful marker. And it's really striking that the first resort of Republicans would be to close down the democratic process, effectively to say, we are going to declare by fiat that he is our nominee. Fortunately they can't shut down the democratic process. But I think you're seeing an awful lot of Republicans - I think Romney spoke for the feelings of a lot of Republicans, but they still haven't been willing to put any real action behind words of criticism of Trump. And we'll see if Romney is actually willing to do that.

CORNISH: Another thing I want to note, a record 102 women lawmakers in the House, now most of them Democrats, what do you expect out of this freshman class?

DIONNE: Just that visual at the swearing in was extraordinary. The range - not only the large number of women, which is significant, but also diversity of religion, diversity by race, diversity by ethnicity. I think the Democrats' challenge will be to have suburban, more moderate progressives work with the rest. That's why they elected Pelosi because she's very good at banging heads together.

CORNISH: That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. Happy New Year. Thank you both.

BROOKS: Same to you.

DIONNE: Happy New Year to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.