WASHINGTON — A new congressional panel is scheduled to meet Wednesday to begin negotiations over the best way to secure the nation’s southern border — and prevent another shutdown.
Hill leaders and President Donald Trump agreed to the conference committee process to resolve their dispute, turning to a group of lawmakers more inclined to make deals than draw red lines.
"Over the next 21 days, I expect that both Democrats and Republicans will operate in good faith," Trump said Friday in the White House Rose Garden in announcing an end to the shutdown. "This is an opportunity for all parties to work together for the benefit of our whole beautiful, wonderful nation."
In exchange for signing a short-term measure to end the 35-day shutdown, Trump agreed to the temporary congressional panel consisting of rank-and-file lawmakers from both parties in the House and Senate. The group is tasked with reconciling differences in legislation and producing a deal that can not only pass both chambers, but meet with the president's approval.
Less than three weeks now remain for the newly created border security conference committee to come up with a solution that prevents another shutdown and satisfies both parties. The short-term spending bill approved on Friday only extended funding through Feb. 15.
While the panel’s first meeting on Wednesday will be open to the public, it’s unclear whether additional meetings will be open or members will vote to close them, allowing them to negotiate privately and more efficiently.
If the committee is successful in crafting a final agreement, it would then be subject to a vote in each chamber.
For the current negotiations, congressional leaders in the House and Senate appointed lawmakers who are appropriators to the conference committee to hash out the details of the spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security that covers the current fiscal year.
Asked Tuesday what the scope of the conference committee’s assignment should be, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said: “Whatever it takes to solve the problem.”
To represent Democrats on the panel, Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey of New York; Appropriations DHS subcommittee Chairwoman Lucille Roybal-Allard of California; and Reps. David Price of North Carolina, Barbara Lee of California, Pete Aguilar of California, and Henry Cueller of Texas. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer chose Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Patrick Leahy of Vermont; Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois; and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana.
For Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appointed Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby of Alabama; Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia; John Hoeven of North Dakota; and Roy Blunt of Missouri. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tapped Appropriations Ranking Members Kay Granger of Texas, Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee, Tom Graves of Georgia and Steven Palazzo of Mississippi.
Jim Dyer, who helped negotiate ends to shutdowns in the mid-1990s as the Republican staff director on the House Appropriations Committee, told NBC News that appropriators will "bring a level of technical expertise to the talks."
It’s an eclectic group of lawmakers — but united in at least one respect: while the Democrats named to the panel oppose a concrete barrier along the border, and the Republicans back the president’s wall policy, all are open to dealmaking with the opposition.
Most Republicans on the panel have been staunch defenders of the president's wall, and have floated various legislative proposals to try to fund it: Fleischmann has been a vocal advocate for a border wall, and Palazzo introduced a bill amid the shutdown this month that would authorize the Treasury Secretary to sell revenue bonds to financially support construction of a wall. Graves, meanwhile, co-sponsored a bill last year that would have provided more than $23 billion for a wall.
"Compromise is the essence of what we do," said Blunt, one of the GOP conferees, in an interview with "Fox News Sunday," who highlighted how Trump’s positions on what’s needed at the border have fluctuated. "The president went from talking about a wall along the entire southern border at one point during the campaign as part of the campaign discussion, to 'let's have barriers where they work' and 'let's have something else where barriers wouldn't work as well.'"
Blunt also warned Trump against using emergency powers to build the wall, an idea that the president has publicly floated and has not ruled out. According to a White House official, the president gave the green light to having lawmakers take a stab at striking a compromise, but if they fail to produce one he likes, he’s prepared to declare a national emergency.
The Democrats chosen for the panel represent a broad spectrum within the party: One represents a district that borders Mexico, another has been on the front lines of the immigration debate on Capitol Hill, and another hails from a conservative state.
Of the panel’s two members from Texas, Cueller is the only one whose district lies on the southern border with Mexico — he represents a region south of San Antonio. Granger represents a district in the northern part of the state, which includes parts of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Aside from being the Senate Democratic whip, Durbin has worked on immigration reform for decades. He was a member of the so-called Gang of Eight that wrote a sweeping immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013 and has repeatedly introduced the Dream Act with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., which would provide a pathway to citizenship for people who came to the U.S. illegally as children.
Tester, who represents a solid red state and was elected to his third term in November, could offer a slightly more moderate perspective among the Democratic members. He also chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the 2016 election cycle.
The use of the conference committee to resolve issues has diminished in recent years as many bills have been passed and modified by instead ping-ponging them between the chambers. Major legislative packages have also largely been decided at the leadership level instead of among rank-and-file members.
And even though those members are now directly involved in the negotiations over border security, congressional leaders will almost certainly be engaged in the process as well — and as of now, the biggest sticking point is likely to remain.
"Have I not been clear on a wall? OK. No, I’ve been very clear on the wall. Been very clear," Pelosi, who has vehemently opposed a wall, said on Friday.
But the door isn't entirely shut on compromise. "I don't want to get out ahead of the negotiators who have been appointed to the conference committee, but I think we've consistently said that we do not support a medieval border wall from sea to shining sea," House Democratic Caucus chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said Tuesday. "However, we are willing to support fencing where it makes sense, but it should be done in an evidence-based fashion."
And House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., appeared open Tuesday to supporting border fencing.
“Obviously negotiations at the conference committee are going to be hopefully directed at how do we best make our borders secure and they will come up with an answer to that question and propose it,” he said during an off-camera briefing with reporters.
Meanwhile Republicans also signaled room for movement, with McCarthy saying he wouldn’t insist on having the word “wall” in a conference report. “It could be a 'barrier' — it doesn’t have to be a 'wall,'” he said.
Whatever the makeup of the panel, because of the high level of political sensitivity surrounding the border wall issue, Dyer believes the conference committee will ultimately amount — again — to a negotiation between leadership and the White House.
"It’s more of a leadership-driven exercise around the fundamental core policy issue of: What does it take to secure the southern border, and is a physical wall part of that security mechanism?" he said.