Dems signal flexibility at border meeting

Democrats on Wednesday strongly suggested they are open to a compromise with President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats' CNN town halls exposed an extreme agenda Buttigieg says he doubts Sanders can win general election Post-Mueller, Trump has a good story to tell for 2020 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 LoweyTrolling of Bill Barr shows how language is twisted to politics Barr says Mueller report will be released 'within a week' Live coverage: Barr faces House panel amid questions over Mueller report 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 Shelby20 Dems demand no more money for ICE agents, Trump wall Conservatives urge Trump to stick with Moore for Fed Poll: Roy Moore leading Alabama GOP field MORE (R-Ala.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore Capito20 Dems demand no more money for ICE agents, Trump wall We can accelerate a cure for Alzheimer's Gillibrand, Grassley reintroduce campus sexual assault bill 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 GravesMnuchin tells Congress it's 'premature' to talk about Trump tax returns decision Live coverage: Barr faces House panel amid questions over Mueller report Overnight Defense: Dem chair rejects Pentagon request to use B for border wall | House fails to override Trump veto | Pelosi at AIPAC vows Israel won't be 'wedge issue' 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.