WASHINGTON ― Members of a congressional panel working on a deal to keep the government open past a Feb. 15 deadline all agree that both sides need to compromise. They also agree that security at the border must be bolstered.
But the bipartisan group, which includes some of the most senior members in the House and Senate, reached few other groundbreaking conclusions during their first meeting in the basement of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. After an initial exchange of pleasantries, the panelists retreated to familiar talking points in their opening statements about why President Donald Trump’s proposed wall is ― or isn’t ― needed on the border with Mexico.
“Today we’re just touching gloves,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), one of the few members of the group who represent a southwestern border district, at the start of the meeting.
Under the agreement reached by Democrats and Trump last week ― a temporary accord that ended the 35-day partial government shutdown without any money for the wall ― a bicameral committee is tasked with reaching a broader border security deal. He said he was giving Democrats an opportunity to debate a measure he says is needed to lower crime and the influx of drugs across the border.
On Wednesday, before the committee members even met, he signaled he was prepared to shut down the government again, tweeting that if the lawmakers are “not discussing or contemplating a Wall or Physical Barrier, they are Wasting their time!”
Democrats, meanwhile, reiterated that while they support enhancing security measures — including improvements to ports of entry, additional aircraft, vessels and Border Patrol agents — they oppose the construction of a wall on the border.
“Smart border security is not overly reliant on physical barriers, which the Trump administration has failed to demonstrate are cost effective compared to better technology and more personnel,” House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said in her opening statement on Wednesday.
She declined to say on Wednesday whether Democrats will ultimately support money for new barriers on the border, as Trump has demanded, however.
“Everything is on the table,” Lowey told reporters after the meeting.
The chances of reaching a deal on border security will likely depend on discussions among congressional staffers that will occur behind closed doors and away from the glare of cameras. Among lawmakers who met Wednesday were some of the most experienced appropriators in Congress ― people who are used to hammering out deals and who have been doing so together in a bipartisan fashion for years.
“Technology is important, but I think some fences and some other things are important too,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), one of those people, told his colleagues at the meeting on Wednesday.
Trump remains, as ever, the wild card in the negotiations, however. He has demonstrated time and time again the ability to blow up agreements reached by Congress ― most recently after criticism from conservative opinion leaders and radio talk show hosts. In December, for example, he refused to sign a continuing resolution funding the government after being blasted by immigration hawks like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh for not doing enough to build a wall he initially promised that Mexico would pay for.
Even if Democrats agree on additional funding for some form of physical barrier on the border, like fencing, which they previously supported, it’s unclear whether Trump will accept it, given his previous demands for a barrier made of concrete or steel.
“The White House is in the [conference meeting]. They’ll be careful observers of what we do,” Shelby reminded reporters on Wednesday.