New Dem caucus chairman: Some wall is good, but not new wall

The newly tapped chairman of the House Democratic Caucus on Wednesday defended the party’s calls for new funds to increase existing barriers at the southern border, even as Democratic leaders have condemned President TrumpDonald John TrumpNASA exec leading moon mission quits weeks after appointment The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' MORE’s border wall as an ineffective — and immoral — monstrosity.

“The House Democratic Caucus is unanimous in supporting the notion that there are certain areas along the border where current barriers exist, where the experts have said we can reinforce those barriers in a way that is consistent with border security,” Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesThe Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Overnight Defense: Trump officials say efforts to deter Iran are working | Trump taps new Air Force secretary | House panel passes defense bill that limits border wall funds House Democrats press leaders to start Trump impeachment MORE (D-N.Y.) told reporters in the Capitol, during his inaugural press briefing after replacing former Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) as caucus chairman.

Jeffries said Democrats are ready to hike funding “substantially” to boost border security through initiatives like new detection technologies, cellphone towers and “reinforcing … fencing and barriers that currently are in existence.”

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But Jeffries, echoing other Democratic leaders, drew a line against the new wall funding demanded by Trump, saying the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spent only a small fraction of the funds Congress appropriated for border security in the last fiscal year. As much as the current debate has focused on national security, he said, it’s also about “the management of public money.”

“We are not willing to waste taxpayer dollars on a medieval border wall that is a 5th century solution to a 21st century problem,” Jeffries said. “And we are certainly not willing to reward a presidential temper tantrum that has shut down the government for 19 days, because real Americans are being impacted.”

Rep. Colin Allred, a freshman Democrat from Texas, also endorsed the idea of bolstering existing border barriers. But the debate over new wall construction, he added, should happen only after the government has reopened.

“We do have physical barriers in place [in Texas]. I have visited them, I have seen them, and I think that they’re appropriate in places,” Allred said.

“What we’re talking about here is … not wasting public money,” he said.

Trump, who hinged his 2016 campaign on a promise to build a “big, beautiful” border wall, has insisted that a Homeland Security spending bill currently under consideration include an additional $5.7 billion for the project. The impasse on the wall funding caused roughly a quarter of the federal government to shut down — a closure that entered its 19th day on Wednesday.

The fight, at times, has become ensnarled in a semantic debate over what constitutes a border wall — and what each side would accept at the border as a condition for reopening the government. Trump has, at times, demanded a concrete barrier, while also floating the idea of a see-through “steel-slat” structure he suggested might be more palatable to Democrats. Whatever the design, Trump has framed the project as vital to the nation’s security.

“This is a choice between right and wrong, justice and injustice,” Trump said Tuesday night, during a prime-time address from the Oval Office. “This is about whether we fulfill our sacred duty to the American citizens we serve.”

Some Democrats make no distinction between a wall and a fence, vowing to oppose any legislation that would fund construction of either barrier.

“I don’t think there’s any difference whatsoever,” said Rep. Filemon VelaFilemon Bartolome VelaWHIP LIST: Democrats who support an impeachment inquiry against President Trump Border Dems introduce bill to process refugee claims in Central America How Pelosi is punishing some critics while rewarding others MORE (D-Texas), who also represents a border district.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Trump-Pelosi fight threatens drug pricing talks MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerNo agreement on budget caps in sight ahead of Memorial Day recess Ex-White House photographer roasts Trump: 'This is what a cover up looked like' under Obama Pelosi: Trump 'is engaged in a cover-up' MORE (D-N.Y.), who have been leading the negotiations with Trump, have refused to accept any funding for new wall construction. Pelosi last week characterized the project as “an immorality.”

Jeffries defended that description Wednesday, carving a distinction between the existing barriers Democrats support and the broader demands of the administration.

“When Speaker Pelosi talks about the immortality of the issue, she’s talking about the entire dynamic as it relates to the xenophobic approach that some in this administration have taken to demonize immigrants,” including legal immigrants and those seeking asylum for legitimate reasons,” Jeffries said. “And what the Trump administration is saying is that we’re going to keep those folks out as well.

“That’s immoral.”

As the shutdown continues, White House officials are scrambling to keep congressional Republicans in line with Trump’s hardline position. Vice President Pence visited the Capitol to huddle with House Republicans Tuesday evening and Trump is meeting with Senate Republicans on Wednesday afternoon.

Afterward, leaders of both parties are scheduled to gather with Trump at the White House for yet another stab at a breakthrough.