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 LoweyDemocrats advance more spending bills, defying Trump budget requests Congress reaches deal on disaster aid Chances for disaster aid deal slip amid immigration fight 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 AguilarPro-business Dem group sees boost in fundraising Left flexes muscle in immigration talks Immigration groups press for pairing Dreamer benefits with border security 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 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 (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 HoyerSteyer plans impeachment push targeting Democrats over recess The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Pelosi faces tipping point on Trump impeachment 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 ThompsonDHS suggests new role for cybersecurity staff — helping with border crisis Hillicon Valley: Trump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact | Phone carriers largely end sharing of location data | Huawei pushes back on ban | Florida lawmakers demand to learn counties hacked by Russians | Feds bust 0M cybercrime group Trump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact 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 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 (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 JayapalHouse Democrat: Seattle airport's ban on ICE detainee flights helps 'hold a lawless administration accountable' The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push WHIP LIST: Democrats who support an impeachment inquiry against President Trump 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 McCarthyRepublicans spend more than million at Trump properties The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi fires back in feud with Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes 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.