Dealmakers in Congress Begin Hashing Out Border Security Plan

From left, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., greet each other Wednesday as a bipartisan group of House and Senate bargainers meet to craft a border security compromise in hope of avoiding another government shutdown. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) – With just over two weeks left to reach a deal to avert another government shutdown, a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Wednesday began debating a funding measure that will be the latest arena for the fight over money for President Donald Trump’s long-promised border wall.

The conference committee that met in the basement of the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon includes six Democrats and four Republicans from the House, as well as four Republicans and three Democrats from the Senate.

Wednesday’s meeting was the first for the group and featured speeches from the lawmakers as members of each party laid out in broad terms their starting points in the negotiations. 

The fight over the border wall shut down the federal government for 35 days as Trump insisted on money for the wall that congressional Democrats were loath to provide. The White House and congressional leadership reached a temporary agreement last week to open the government until Feb. 15 without any border wall money, giving lawmakers a chance to negotiate on wall funding.

But even the Republican members of the conference committee said Wednesday a wall should only be part of a broader border security agreement.

Both Senator Richard Shelby, the Alabama Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Texas Congresswoman Kay Granger, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, called for fences or walls at strategic spots on the border that see the most crossings. They said these barriers should also be combined with technological methods for policing the expansive border with Mexico.

The Republican leaders on the committee also said the final agreement should include money for more border patrol agents and other staff along the border. Both sides agreed Congress should allow the administration to hire more immigration judges to clear the backlog of cases.

Democrats, meanwhile, put forward suggestions centered around reforms to how the border operates, including boosting technology like drones and sensors and upgrades to facilities at legal points of entry. Representative Nita Lowey, the New York Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, also said the agreement should send money to Central American countries to help stop the flow of immigrants from the region.

“Every dollar spent on ineffective proposals means one less dollar invested in measures that actually keep us safe,” Lowey said at the beginning of the hearing.

Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., said during the meeting she is working on finalizing the details of a formal proposal that will become Democrats’ starting point in the negotiations.

That proposal calls for 1,000 more customs officers while cutting the number of detention beds available to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The plan would also boost the frequency of inspections for immigration detention facilities.

Roybal-Allard said at a press conference Wednesday after the meeting that there is no money for a border wall in the proposal as of now. At the same press conference, Lowey declined to give specifics on how much the plan would cost.  

Trump showed in a tweet Wednesday that his stance on border wall money being an essential element of any government funding package has not softened, writing that the conference members are “wasting their time” if they are not considering a “wall or physical barrier” as part of their negotiations.

The president has indicated if Congress is unable to reach an agreement that includes border wall money before the Feb. 15 deadline, the government could shut down again, or he would use executive power to steer money to a border wall project.

Before the hearing began, Senator Shelby, the Alabama Republican, acknowledged a physical wall will likely need to be part of any final agreement.

“I think that he’s focused on physical barriers,” Shelby told reporters, referring to Trump.  “I believe we’re going to have to have some physical barriers – we have some physical barriers already. I think it’s going to take a comprehensive approach and I think that would be part of it.”

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