Congressional negotiators near deal offering Trump much less border money
WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators neared a deal Friday that would offer President Trump far less than the $5.7 billion he’s sought for walls along the U.S.-Mexico border, as lawmakers worked to prevent another government shutdown next week.
Two people familiar with the talks said the understanding among Republicans is that the deal would offer around $2 billion for border barriers. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private deliberations.
Democrats disputed that figure, saying it was too high and that negotiations were ongoing. “We will not agree to $2 billion in funding for barriers,” said Evan Hollander, spokesman for House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., who is leading the bipartisan talks.
Either way, it was clear negotiators were preparing to come in far below Trump’s demands, raising the question of whether the president would agree to their deal. Lawmakers face a Feb. 15 deadline when large portions of the government will shut down unless Congress and Trump act first.
“I can tell you this just for sure. It’s not $5.7 billion for the wall. It’s not anywhere close,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, a member of the 17-member conference committee working on the issue. “We want to add money for technology, ports, and all of that, yes. There’s a lot of money. But is there money for $5.7 (billion) just for the wall? No. Not even close.”
White House spokespeople did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It was unclear exactly what types of barriers or fencing would be funded, and whether Trump would conclude the structures meet his definition of a wall. There are already more than 600 miles of barriers of various kinds along the U.S.-Mexico border, about half of which are designed to stop vehicles from crossing while the other miles are aimed at blocking pedestrians as well.
Cuellar said there’s been discussion of replacing existing fencing, and that he also supports new and improved levee walls with metal bollards on top that are used in some places. Trump himself has fluctuated in describing what he envisions, from the 30-foot high concrete wall he promised during the campaign that Mexico would pay for, to more recently discussing a steel slat design.
People briefed on the White House’s strategy said that the Trump administration had hoped to change the rhetoric during the debate and stop calling any barrier a “wall,” in the hopes that it would make it easier for Democrats to accept more funding.
Conservative groups who have backed Trump’s hard line have pushed him to try and stick to a number that is close to $5.7 billion, but the White House’s precise demands remained unclear.
“It’s just a difference of opinion on how to get there but we all agree on securing the border and a majority of us, I think 100 percent, we do not want to have another government shutdown and so we’re continuing to work in good faith with one anther,” said Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., another member of the committee.
Large portions of the government are currently operating on a short-term spending bill that Trump signed Jan. 25, ending the nation’s longest ever government shutdown. Trump had forced the 35-day partial shutdown with his demands for border wall funding, which Democrats would not agree to. When he signed the short-term legislation bringing the shutdown to a close, Trump said he would give Congress three weeks to come up with a border security deal to his liking, or he would shut the government down again or declare a national emergency to use the military to build his wall.
That three week period is up Feb. 15.
In order to allow sufficient time for both chambers of Congress to pass the legislation and get it to the president ahead of that date, lawmakers hope to finalize their deal Monday. Trump is speaking at his first campaign rally of the year Monday night in El Paso, Texas, leading to concerns from some congressional aides that he could veer back to rhetoric on the wall that could throw any deal they reach into question.