WASHINGTON -- Congressional negotiators worked toward a deal Wednesday that would increase fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border without delivering President Donald Trump the wall money he wants, as pressure built to reach an agreement ahead of a government shutdown deadline next week.
A bipartisan committee of House and Senate lawmakers traded offers behind the scenes, with committee Democrats saying money for border barriers was on the table, and Republicans acknowledging they won't get Trump the $5.7 billion he has sought for his wall.
Lawmakers hope to have a tentative deal by Friday or soon thereafter, allowing time for it to clear the House and Senate by Feb. 15. That's when funding runs out for a large portion of the federal government, causing another partial shutdown, if Congress and Trump don't act first.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she thinks House and Senate negotiators could reach a deal by the end of this week if "left to their own devices." She said she would be willing to support any compromise border security legislation they produce, adding that she has urged the White House to adopt the same "hands-off" posture.
Pelosi said she relayed to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., one of the lead negotiators, that "whatever you all come to an agreement on, bipartisan agreement, I will support it."
She added that she had relayed her hope to Vice President Mike Pence "that the White House will have the same hands-off policy as I have vis-a-vis the appropriators."
Shelby later said that Pelosi did not promise to put the committee's possible work product on the House floor but "said she would like to see a legislative solution, the sooner the better."
Leaders of both parties made clear that, after the nation's longest-ever government shutdown ended late last month with Trump signing a short-term spending bill that includes no new money for his wall, they want to reach finality soon to avoid another federal funding lapse.
And few are eager to prolong the uncertainty by passing yet another stopgap spending bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argued in a private meeting with senators Wednesday against passage of another short-term funding bill, according to a Republican with knowledge of the exchange who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe it.
Committee members declined to divulge details of their negotiations. But, after Democrats started out last week offering no money for physical barriers of any kind along the border, House Appropriations Chairman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. -- who is leading the conference committee negotiations -- said Wednesday that "everything is on the table."
Another committee Democrat, Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, who represents a border district, spoke of enhanced fencing or other types of barriers along portions of the 2,000-mile border -- as long as local residents and authorities agree, and sensitive areas such as butterfly habitats are protected.
"I'm hoping we can avoid certain sensitive areas that I've mentioned, and we can put language there that they're going to work with the local entities," Cuellar told reporters. "If we do that, I'm telling you a lot of these things can be solved by the end. Hence, barriers."
There already are hundreds of miles of walls and fences of various kinds along the border, which lawmakers of both parties have been funding for years. Trump's $5.7 billion request would build 230 additional miles of steel barriers.
Trump's advisers are hopeful that congressional negotiators can reach a deal, but he has not shown any willingness to back down from his insistence that taxpayer money be used to construct parts of a wall along the Mexico border. The president renewed his demands for a wall in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, and is expected to make the case again on Monday during a rally in El Paso, Texas.
In a statement Wednesday, Michael Glassner, chief operating officer for Trump's re-election campaign, said that El Paso was chosen as a rally site to highlight the president's message.
"As the president continues his fight to secure our border, there's no better place to demonstrate that walls work than in El Paso," Glassner said. "President Trump looks forward to visiting with the patriots of Texas who are on the front lines of the struggle against open border Democrats who allow drugs, crime, and sex trafficking all along our border every day."
Glassner's statement echoed a claim made by Trump during his State of the Union address that the construction of a "powerful barrier" along the border in El Paso had dramatically reduced violent crime.
In a fact check, the El Paso Times found that the crime rate had fallen long before the construction of fencing authorized under President George W. Bush and completed in mid-2009.
Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, tweeted that "El Paso has been one of the safest cities in the nation long before the wall was built in 2008. #WallsDontWork."
Inside the Capitol there is cautious optimism that the conference committee, which is stacked with experienced negotiators from both parties, can reach a deal. But members acknowledge they cannot be certain that Trump will support their product in the end, especially after a late December instance when he changed his mind after the Senate had passed a spending bill with no new wall funding, pushing the nation into a 35-day shutdown instead.
Trump has dismissed the committee's negotiations as a "waste of time" and suggested that he might declare a national emergency that would allow him to circumvent Congress and use the military to build his wall.
Many Republicans are opposed to that approach, saying it would set a bad precedent for future Democratic presidents and could put them in the uncomfortable position of having to vote on a resolution overturning the emergency declaration.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he believed lawmakers should find a legislative solution.
"I think the president was very clear even last night that we are a legislative body, and we should use our power to solve this," McCarthy said, referring to Trump's State of the Union speech. "He has a responsibility as well to protect this nation but he's giving us the time to get the job done ... I believe at the end of the day we should get this done legislatively, and I'm looking forward to making that happen."
On Wednesday, Shelby and other Republicans on the conference committee organized a private briefing with Border Patrol and Customs representatives that Democrats agreed to attend. The briefers were career professionals, including U.S. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost, as opposed to Trump administration political appointees.
But the briefing didn't appear to produce any breakthroughs, and Democrats on the conference committee said the briefers seemed determined to support Trump's $5.7 billion request for the wall.
In an echo of some of the arguments often heard from Trump, Shelby said that there was discussion in the briefing about how "terrorists are coming across the border, not just people looking for a better way of life ... but people who could really do us harm" from "all over the world," including the Middle East.
No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Dick Durbin said lawmakers were told the top priority was technology that could screen vehicles for drugs or migrants at border ports of entry.
"They don't rule out barriers, they don't rule out fencing, but that isn't the first priority," Durbin told reporters.
But Shelby said the officials suggested a three-pronged approach using barriers, technology and personnel. He said the closed session was constructive.
"The dialogue is good. The tone is good. We're talking about substance," Shelby said.
Pence on shutdown
Meanwhile, Pence on Wednesday defended Trump's tactic of shutting down the federal government in a bid to gain leverage for border wall funding and said he could not guarantee that another closure will be averted next week.
"I never think it's a mistake to stand up for what you believe in, and I think what the American people admire most about this president is he says what he means and he means what he says in a very real sense," Pence said during a television interview. "He said there's a crisis at our southern border. He said he was determined to get the funding to build a wall and secure our border, and he was willing to take a stand to accomplish that."
Pence, who appeared on CBS This Morning after Trump's State of the Union address Tuesday night, said the White House agreed to reopen government for three weeks after talking to "rank-and-file" members of the House and Senate.
"We were told they were willing to work with us, they were willing to fund a barrier at our southern border and address the other priorities that the president laid out in that common-sense approach," Pence said. "We've taken them at their word. The American people saw that this president is absolutely determined to keep his word to secure our border and end the crisis of illegal immigration."
Asked whether he could guarantee that there won't be another shutdown after Feb. 15, Pence said he could not.
"Well, I think our hope is that there's not but, I can't make that guarantee," Pence said. "The simple truth is that Congress needs to do their job. The president laid out last night a common-sense approach to deal with what is a very real crisis on our southern border."
In a television appearance on Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said a deal could be struck among congressional negotiators if Trump stays out of the process.
Asked if he thinks that will happen, Schumer told MSNBC: "I don't know. He can't help himself. He's in a hole. He had a great opportunity in that speech to dig himself out of that hole."
Information for this article was contributed by John Wagner, Mike DeBonis, Erica Werner, Elise Viebeck Damian Paletta and Philip Rucker of The Washington Post; and by Alan Fram, Darlene Superville, Andrew Taylor and Elliot Spagat of The Associated Press.
U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said Wednesday that a private session with Border Patrol and Customs officials and congressional negotiators produced good dialogue on barriers, technology and personnel. “We’re talking about substance,” he said.
House Appropriations Chairman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., (right photo) who is leading the negotiations, said “everything is on the table” to produce a border security agreement.
A Section on 02/07/2019
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