Fleischmann says he's ready to compromise, but calls US border crossings 'crisis' that requires wall and more

Congressman Chuck Fleischmann spoke to the editors of the Times Free Press during a visit on February 1, 2019.
photo Congressman Chuck Fleischmann spoke to the editors of the Times Free Press during a visit on February 1, 2019.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann will travel Sunday to a number of southern border towns along with his colleagues on a Congressional conference committee he hopes can soon resolve a budget impasse over border security.

The Tennessee Republican, the ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security, said Friday he is willing to compromise with Democrats and thinks Congressional appropriators "could resolve our differences in an hour" if both sides are willing to cooperate to improve border security and fund other major government operations.

But bridging the differences that produced the longest shutdown of major federal agencies in U.S. history last month may require both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Trump to back a compromise plan for funding more than one fourth of the U.S. government after a temporary financing plan expires on Feb. 15.

Fleischmann, a Trump supporter and backer of more funding to extend the wall on the border with Mexico, said he expects Trump to address the border security funding needs in his State of the Union address to Congress Tuesday night while attempting to strike a conciliatory tone going forth.

Fleischmann said there was "a very good start" building "very good relations" when the panel working on a new funding plan first met this week to begin drafting a compromise to keep the federal government funded. But President Trump and the Republicans in Congress want at least some money to expand the wall or border barrier along the southern border, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this week Democrats will not support more money for a wall.

"When Speaker Pelosi said there would be no funding for the wall, members on both sides of the aisle winced," Fleischmann said. "The president's comments about wasting our time and how this isn't going to work were largely because of Speaker Pelosi's comments, not something that is coming from committee members who are Democrats."

Trump told the New York Times Thursday he has gotten along with Pelosi in the past, "but now I don't think I will anymore.

"I think that she's hurting the country very badly," Trump told the Times. "If she doesn't approve a wall, the rest of it's just a waste of money and time and energy because it's, it's desperately needed."

Fleischmann said he agrees with Trump that border crossings are a national crisis and emergency, although he said he hopes Trump won't have to use his executive authority to declare a national emergency to build more of the wall.

"More people are coming and we're seeing more caravans and illegal drugs coming into our country," Fleischmann said. "The women and children who are being abused on the way up [to the United States from Central America] is horrific - we're talking rapes and all kinds of human rights abuses."

But during Wednesday's conference committee, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuella said his hometown of Laredo, Texas, on the border has a murder rate more than 25 percent below the U.S. average "and two of the cities in my district on the border, Roma and Rio Grande city, are among the 12 safest cities in the nation."

By comparison, Cuella noted that FBI statistics indicate that the murder rate in the city of Chattanooga (17.3 per 100,000) is four and a half times higher than in Laredo, Texas (3.84 murders per 100,0000 persons). Cuella dismissed claims of major crime problems along the Mexican border "and any other border town will tell you the same thing."

Police say none of the murders in Chattanooga involved illegal immigrants, but Fleischmann said too many illegal drugs and other problems here are coming from illegal immigrants from the South.

The Chattanooga congressman said over 85 percent of his calls from constituents are supportive of building the wall and Fleischmann said support for Trump in Tennessee's 3rd congressional district remains as strong as when the president was elected in 2016, despite recent surveys showing a recent decline in Trump's favorable ratings nationwide.

Fleischmann insisted that Trump and Republicans have shown a willingness to compromise on the funding level for any border barriers and are open to helping the children of those brought to the United States by their parents but are still here illegally.

Fleischmann said the dispute needs to soon be resolved for the budget year that will already be half over next month.

"Sadly, this has become a very partisan and parochial issue on basically one bill in fiscal 2019," he said. "We are going to begin budget negotiations for fiscal 2020 on these very same issues in about two to three weeks with the constraints of the Budget Control Act. And we could be arguing these same issues with fewer dollars available next year."

If Trump opts to declare a national emergency to use his authority to continue building a border wall, Fleischmann said the action is likely to be tied up in courts and it could set a dangerous precedent for a future president to declare an emergency over something like climate change that would allow the president to shut down energy plants or industry.

Despite the challenges in finding a legislative solution for the border wall controversy, Fleischmann said he remains hopeful for "some kind of a grand compromise.

"It's not going to be my bill or my way, and it's probably not going to be the way that any other members would draft it," he said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.