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Border Security Talks Begin On Capitol Hill With Signs of Narrow Bipartisan Deal

A steel barrier runs along the U.S.-Mexico border near Calexico, Calif. Bipartisan negotiators on Capitol Hill are discussing what kind of physical barriers are needed and how much Congress should spend to address national security issues at the Southwest border.
Scott Olson
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A steel barrier runs along the U.S.-Mexico border near Calexico, Calif. Bipartisan negotiators on Capitol Hill are discussing what kind of physical barriers are needed and how much Congress should spend to address national security issues at the Southwest border.

Updated at 5:45 p.m. ET

A formal committee of congressional negotiators held its first, and maybe only, public meeting on Wednesday to kick off talks to reach a border security deal that President Trump will support.

Leaders from both sides of the aisle sounded open to compromise. Democrats and Republicans on the House-Senate panel stressed they were not far apart on a plan to give the Department of Homeland Security additional resources to boost personnel, technology and other efforts to secure the Southwest border. But any talk of broader immigration reforms that Democrats would like in exchange for the president's demands for $5.7 billion for a border wall were set aside to drill down on a narrow spending deal.

In opening remarks, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., signaled a willingness to back more than the $1.6 billion previously appropriated for border security. And Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said pieces of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border could be "strategically placed" and don't necessarily have to be from "coast to coast" but simply "strategically placed where traffic is highest."

Appropriators are generally the most seasoned and bipartisan negotiators in Congress, and they could reach a border deal on their own more easily if not for the uncertainty of the president and his insistence on funds for a border wall.

"I know that the American people are counting on us to come to a reasonable and responsible solution. We are appropriators, and consistent with the proud tradition of our committees, I am confident that we will be able to reach a compromise," Lowey said.

"As long as we remain polarized, we will never resolve our differences on this critical issue that we owe to the American people," Shelby said.

Wednesday's meeting was open to the public, but future talks are expected to go on in private. The conference committee has a Feb. 15 deadline to get a bill to the president or agree to another stopgap funding bill to keep the government open. Otherwise, another partial government shutdown looms.

The conference committee is made up of lawmakers who sit on the House and Senate appropriations committees and are charged with writing the annual 12 spending bills that fund the U.S. government. Seven of the 12 bills remain unresolved, although the partial government shutdown centered on just one: the DHS funding bill.

Other top members of the committee talked about expanded funding for additional border agents and more technology such as drones — possible areas of agreement — though many still stuck somewhat to party talking points.

Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee's Homeland Security Subcommittee, suggested adding more customs agents at ports of entry, noting that these are where most smuggled drugs and other contraband come through, and she stressed more money is needed for combating the humanitarian crisis at the border caused by family separations and detention centers, where two children have died.

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the subcommittee, said he still believes a "physical barrier is needed," though that's not all. "I do think we need a wall, a physical barrier, where the barrier works, but that's only one part of it," Fleischmann said. "We need all of the above."

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a Senate appropriator, underscored that for these talks to work, both sides must give: "Doing our job, by definition, means nobody gets everything they want."

The panel was born out of the deal reached last week to end the longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history. Trump relented on his demand for wall funding to reopen the government, but he refuses to take another shutdown threat off the table.

Speaking to reporters before the meeting began, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who sits on the conference committee, said the president must also be on board and criticized Trump for the looming possibility of another shutdown if talks don't succeed.

"It would be helpful if the president was on board to reach a successful conclusion on this debate," Durbin said. "The president threatens to give us another shutdown if we don't cave to him. That's no way to sit down at the table and have a rational conclusion."

The president weighed in Wednesday morning on Twitter, telling lawmakers they are "Wasting their time!" if "Wall or Physical Barrier" funding is not included in the deal. In his remarks last Friday as the government shutdown finally ended, Trump did signal some flexibility, saying that "we do not need 2,000 miles of concrete wall from sea to shiny sea." But he has continued to push for his idea of a wall, and it's unclear how little wall or fencing he would accept. Trump told the Wall Street Journal on Sunday that he thought the odds were "less than 50-50" of the congressional appropriators reaching a compromise.

Top House Democrats have shown some willingness to negotiate. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., told reporters on Tuesday that Democrats could support fencing in certain areas if it is "evidence based" and recommended by border experts.

Congressional Republicans are eager to reach a deal that can appease the president and head off the possibility that he tries to invoke emergency powers to end-run around Congress to build a wall. "I'm for whatever works, which means avoiding a shutdown and avoiding the president feeling he should declare a national emergency," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters on Tuesday. "Exactly how to do that, as you all know, has been quite challenging."

Negotiators initially wrestled with the scope of the talks, with lawmakers divided on whether they should include broader immigration issues — such as extending protections to people in the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — or stick strictly to funding questions.

But after the first round of negotiations on Wednesday, both sides seemed on the same page — focusing on the specifics of the kinds of programs they should fund and at what levels.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
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