Dems signal flexibility at border meeting

Democrats on Wednesday strongly suggested they are open to a compromise with President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders apologizes to Biden for supporter's op-ed Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Democrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' MORE even as they unveiled an initial proposal for securing the border that includes no physical barriers.

Democratic leaders emerged from a bipartisan budget meeting on border security taking a hard line on Trump’s proposed border wall, while hinting they were open to a deal.

“We will expand on the $1.6 billion for border security-related programs that House Democrats have already passed,” House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyHouse revives agenda after impeachment storm On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Senate approves Trump trade deal with Canada, Mexico | Senate Dems launch probe into Trump tax law regulations | Trump announces Fed nominees House Democrats unveil .35B Puerto Rico aid bill MORE (D-N.Y.) said at a conference committee meeting.

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She said smart border security would not be overly reliant on physical barriers but on better technology and more personnel, a phrasing that left open the possibility of barriers.

Lawmakers met Wednesday for the first time since the longest government shutdown in U.S. history to work out a deal on Homeland Security spending. Negotiators face a Feb. 15 deadline to get a new deal and prevent another shutdown.

In their opening bid, Democrats proposed strengthening border security by adding 1,000 new customs officers, funding new imaging technology to scan cars and trucks at ports of entry and boosting resources related to migrants being held in custody. Their proposal would also limit Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention beds and focus on alternatives to ICE detention programs.

Lowey said she was “cautiously optimistic” about reaching a compromise, while Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), the only member of the conference committee to represent a border district, also signaled a willingness to negotiate.

“Right now, I'm saying no wall,” he said, before adding that there were ways to reach a compromise on a border barrier that would allow both sides to claim a victory. He noted that the border currently features 654 miles of barriers, of which roughly 300 miles are not a wall, but a low-lying vehicle barrier. 

“Hint, hint, 300 miles of vehicle barriers,” Cuellar said. “There's ways to get where we need to get.”

Cuellar also predicted that the sides will have little problem reaching an agreement on the vast majority of border security provisions. It's just the wall — and the thorny politics surrounding it — that will be the sticking point, likely dragging the negotiations to the edge of the Feb. 15 funding deadline. 

“At the end it's going to be: What do we do about the barrier? And we can get a little creative at the end,” he said.

Republicans insisted that barriers were part of the solution, but spoke in terms of general barriers and emphasized the need for cost-effective measures.

“Our border patrol tells us that they need physical barriers to help them do their job. Not from coast to coast, but strategically placed where traffic is highest,” said Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyRoberts under pressure from both sides in witness fight GOP senator on Trump soliciting foreign interference: 'Those are just statements' Sunday shows - All eyes on Senate impeachment trial MORE (R-Ala.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoDemocrat Richard Ojeda announces Senate bid after dropping out of presidential race Spending bill to address miners' health care, pensions Manchin warns he'll slow-walk government funding bill until he gets deal on miners legislation MORE (R-W.Va.), who heads the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, called for barriers “where they make sense.” 

Rep. Tom GravesJohn (Tom) Thomas GravesThe Hill's Morning Report — Pelosi makes it official: Trump will be impeached Republican Tom Graves announces retirement from House Lawmakers skeptical of progress on spending deal as wall battle looms MORE (R-Ga.) suggested that the final compromise could be found in face-saving measures that would allow both sides to declare victory. 

“I suspect we might have some discussions about terminology and words we use,” he said.

The question of how Trump would respond to a final agreement hung over the hearing.

Trump has suggested that the group has a small chance of success, and that he might resort to another shutdown or declare a state of emergency if he is not satisfied with the result.

“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 ahead of the meeting.

But appropriators seemed determine to soldier on with a compromise regardless of Trump’s position.

“The president wasn’t here today,” Lowey said.