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Hill committee tasked with preventing another shutdown begins negotiations

President Trump tweeted ahead of the group's first session that the bipartisan panel was "wasting their time" if they didn't discuss a wall or barrier along the southern border.
Image: The Capitol during the partial government shutdown in Washington on Jan. 24, 2019.
The session came hours after President Donald Trump tweeted that lawmakers on the committee are "wasting their time" if they didn't discuss a wall or barrier along the southern border. J. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON — Negotiations formally began Wednesday on a border security funding compromise that would prevent another government shutdown.

Opening statements at the brief afternoon meeting of the newly created bipartisan conference committee nodded to possible compromise.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., suggested that Democrats are willing “to expand on the $1.6 billion in border security programs that House Democrats have already passed.”

After the meeting ended, Democrats unveiled an outline for their proposal, which would fund 1,000 new Customs officers, new imaging technology, and repair projects at ports of entry, along with support for "many other important Homeland Security priorities, which we will not have the funding to address if the President insists we set aside $5.7 billion for border barriers."

Before President Donald Trump signed onto a short-term funding plan last week to end the 35-day partial shutdown, Democrats were prepared to offer at least $5.7 billion in border security.

Democrats support funding, Lowey said Wednesday, for improvements to ports of entry, more immigration judges to reduce a backlog, assistants to Central American countries to alleviate the migrant situation in them, using new technology, aircraft and vessels to help the Department of Homeland Security patrol the borders and resources to address humanitarian needs.

At the same time, Lowey said, "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."

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said that a comprehensive approach is necessary to secure the border, involving technology, personnel, infrastructure and physical barriers.

“Smart technology alone does not stop anyone from crossing over into the U.S. illegally,” he said. “Border patrol tells us that they physical barriers to help them do their job — not from coast to coast but strategically placed where the traffic is highest,” he said.

But he added, “I must stress that as long as we remain polarized we will never resolve this critical issue.”

He and Jon Tester, D-Mont., both said most parties involved were likely to be unhappy with some element of the outcome. "The deal we reach probably won't be perfect and it probably isn't going to please everyone," said Tester.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said that the president might be among those disappointed with the final bill — but presidents never get everything they want from Congress, and the committee could potentially use their time negotiating to put a permanent end to shutdowns.

"If the choice is between shut-up or shutdown, we've got to do our constitutional responsibility and avoid a shutdown," Durbin said.

It is unclear whether the panel's following meetings will take place in open session or behind closed doors. Members and leadership aides largely agree that the committee likely needs to produce a product by next Monday, Feb. 11, to get it passed through both houses and onto the president's desk before the clock runs out on Feb. 15.

The session came hours after Trump tweeted that lawmakers on the committee are "wasting their time" if they didn't discuss a wall or barrier along the southern border.

The panel, made up of Democratic and Republican members from the House and Senate, has less than three weeks to reach agreement on the best way to secure the border with Mexico and stave off another government shutdown. Any deal will not only have to pass both chambers but also gain Trump's approval.

The president and congressional leaders ended the the longest shutdown in history last week with a stopgap measure to reopen the government through Feb. 15.

The partial government shutdown came as a result of a disagreement over funding for security measures, including Trump's proposed border wall. The president had demanded $5.7 billion for a wall, but Democrats declined.

In announcing an end to the shutdown, Trump on Friday called the creation of the congressional committee "an opportunity for all parties to work together for the benefit of our whole beautiful, wonderful nation."