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 LoweyCongress set to ignore Trump's wall request in stopgap measure Overnight Defense: Trump says Taliban talks 'dead' after canceled Camp David meeting | North Korea offers to restart nuke talks this month | Trump denies role in Air Force crew staying at his resort McConnell: Short-term spending bill needed to avoid shutdown 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 AguilarDemocratic leaders seek balance amid liberal push to go big on immigration Katherine Clark quietly eyes leadership ascent The Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck 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 JeffriesLewandowski, Democrats tangle at testy hearing Words matter, except to Democrats, when it involves impeaching Trump Democrats face key moment on impeachment drive 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 HoyerDemocrats headed for a subpoena showdown with White House Election security funds caught in crosshairs of spending debate New storm rises over Kavanaugh 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 ThompsonTop Democrat demands answers from CBP on security of biometric data Hillicon Valley: 8chan owner defends platform before Congress | Facebook launches dating feature | New York City sues T-Mobile | Top NSA cyber official names ransomware as 2020 threat | Blue Dog Dems urge action on election security 8chan owner defends platform in testimony before Congress 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 SchumerSchumer, Pelosi push Trump to back universal background check bill Sinema says she would back Kennedy in race against Markey Democrats threaten to withhold defense votes over wall 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 JayapalPelosi woos progressives on prescription drug pricing plan Democrats ignore Asian American and Pacific Islander voters at their peril Overnight Health Care: Watchdog details severe trauma suffered by separated children | Judge approves B CVS-Aetna merger | House Dem Caucus chair backs 'Medicare for All' 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 McCarthyGOP struggles with retirement wave Trump touts Washington Post story on GOP support Pence extends olive branch to Cummings after Trump's Baltimore attacks 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.