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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 LoweyTrump seeks to freeze .4 billion of programs in final week of presidency This week: Trump's grip on Hill allies faces test Trump signs .3T relief, spending package 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 AguilarAOC v. Pelosi: Round 12? Maloney to lead Democrats' campaign arm House Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress 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 JeffriesUS Chamber of Commerce to stop supporting some lawmakers following the Capitol riots Lawmakers mount pressure on Trump to leave office Sunday shows - Capitol siege, Trump future dominate 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 HoyerGOP divided over Liz Cheney's future Pelosi mum on when House will send impeachment article to Senate Colorado officials pen letter requesting probe into Boebert's actions 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 ThompsonActing DHS chief Chad Wolf stepping down Security boosted for lawmakers' travel around inauguration: report COVID-19 is wild card as Pelosi faces tricky Speaker vote Sunday 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 SchumerChuck SchumerBiden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate Democrats looking to speed through Senate impeachment trial 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 JayapalThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history Rep. Adriano Espaillat tests positive for COVID-19 Overnight Health Care: Trump admin makes changes to speed vaccinations | CDC to order negative tests for international travelers | More lawmakers test positive after Capitol siege 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 McCarthyGOP divided over Liz Cheney's future Democrats point fingers on whether Capitol rioters had inside help Pelosi suggests criminal charges for any lawmaker who helped with Capitol riot 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.