Dems give themselves some wiggle room in border talks

Democrats are giving themselves some room for movement in bipartisan congressional negotiations over border security funding.

Less than a week after the shutdown ended, House Democrats are walking a fine line of avoiding being seen as soft on Trump’s goal of building a wall while also not appearing obstinate in talks aimed at preventing another shutdown.

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Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday downplayed the need for physical barriers during the first meeting of the bicameral committee tasked with finding a border security compromise by Feb. 15. But they also didn’t close the door entirely.

“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,” House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyLeft-wing Dems in minority with new approach to spending On The Money: Trump issues first veto, warning of 'reckless' resolution | US hits Russia with new sanctions | Dems renew push for contractor back pay | Lawmakers seek probe into undocumented workers at Trump businesses House Dems renew push for government contractor back pay MORE (D-N.Y.) said at the conference meeting.

When asked afterward if physical barriers are off the table, Lowey was noncommittal.

“At this point, I’m certainly not going to give an answer to that question,” she told reporters.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), a centrist Democrat on the 17-member conference committee, said House Democrats were approaching the negotiations in staunch opposition to any new barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The bottom line is, my position is no,” Cuellar said shortly before the start of the conference meeting.

But Cuellar, who represents a district along the Mexican border, also hinted that there’s room for give-and-take.

“I’m saying no, but we’re negotiators and we’ll talk,” he said.

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Trump dug in on his demand for a border wall Wednesday ahead of the conference meeting.

“If the committee of Republicans and Democrats now meeting on Border Security is not discussing or contemplating a Wall or Physical Barrier, they are Wasting their time!” Trump tweeted.

House Democratic conferees unveiled the outline of a border security proposal that calls for funding 1,000 new customs officers; new technology at ports of entry to scan vehicles for illicit drugs; equipment for mail processing facilities to detect opioids; and repair projects at ports of entry.

For now, Democrats are not agreeing to money for new barriers.

“We want to follow the facts. But what we can’t do is arbitrarily give a number for a border wall that we don’t feel is effective and allocate funding for that,” said Rep. Pete AguilarPeter (Pete) Ray AguilarLeft flexes muscle in immigration talks Immigration groups press for pairing Dreamer benefits with border security Lawmakers haggling over border dollars much lower than Trump's demand MORE (D-Calif.), another conference committee member, after Wednesday’s meeting.

Democratic leaders also aren’t shooting down the possibility of physical barriers.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesBipartisan think tank to honor lawmakers who offer 'a positive tenor' GOP leader needles Dems on anti-Semitism resolution Dems under fire put brakes on Omar resolution MORE (N.Y.) said at a press briefing Tuesday that his party is willing to support certain “fencing” that falls short of a full-scale border wall.

“We do not support a medieval border wall from sea to shining sea,” Jeffries said. “However, we are willing to support fencing where it makes sense. But it should be done in an evidence-based fashion.”

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerLawmakers contemplate a tough political sell: Raising their pay Chances of passing Dem budget are '50-50,' says chairman Dems unite against Trump's budget  — but challenges coming MORE (D-Md.) also didn’t rule out the possibility of Democrats accepting new fencing.

“The negotiations of 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,” Hoyer told reporters Tuesday.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonLawmakers contemplate a tough political sell: Raising their pay Exclusive: Biden to run for White House, says Dem lawmaker Nielsen testifies: Five things you need to know MORE (D-Miss.) said “there’s room for a conversation” about whether certain barriers might be the best security strategy in some places along the border.

“I have a record of supporting barriers in the past, so I’m not running from that,” Thompson said Wednesday. “I just think that over time you have to develop and see whether or not there are ways of accomplishing what you want other than barriers, if it can be accomplished. Some places, barriers are probably the optimal.”

Democrats have previously voted for authorizing fencing; in 2006, they supported about 700 miles of fencing along the southern border. A total of 64 House Democrats and 26 Senate Democrats voted for it, including Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerWhy we need to build gateway now Campaign to draft Democratic challenger to McConnell starts raising funds Schumer congratulates J. Lo and A-Rod, but says 'I'm never officiating a wedding again' MORE (N.Y.).

But some Democrats now question the semantics of authorizing money for something called a “fence” or “barrier” versus a “wall.”

“We’ve been very clear on our position on the wall. And just because you call it something else doesn’t mean it’s still not a border barrier,” said Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalOn The Money: Trump issues emergency order grounding Boeing 737 Max jets | Senate talks over emergency resolution collapse | Progressives seek defense freeze in budget talks Progressives seek defense freeze in budget talks House Dems reintroduce the Dream Act MORE (D-Wash.), co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

When asked Wednesday if a border security deal could include physical barriers, another progressive Democrat, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) replied, “At this point, no.”

“I’ll see what the details of that are and how they define that. But, you know, wall across the border is ridiculous. The cost is ridiculous,” said Grijalva, whose district includes part of the border with Mexico.

Republicans are also indicating room for compromise on the border wall fight.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyOvernight Energy: McConnell tees up vote on Green New Deal | Centrist Dems pitch alternative to plan | House Republican likens Green New Deal to genocide | Coca-Cola reveals it uses 3M tons of plastic every year House GOP lawmaker says Green New Deal is like genocide GOP lawmakers: House leaders already jockeying for leadership contests MORE (R-Calif.) told reporters on Tuesday that “it doesn’t have to be a wall.”

“Physical barriers would be fine,” McCarthy said, adding that the terms “wall” and “barrier” are equivalent to him and Trump.

“Inside the meetings we’ve had, he’s said it could be a barrier, it could be a wall,” McCarthy said. “Because what a barrier does, it’s still the same thing. It’s the 30-foot steel slat, that’s a barrier.”

Mike Lillis contributed.