Lawmakers meet hoping to avert another government shutdown

Democratic and Republican negotiators expressed optimism on Wednesday that Congress can find a deal on border security to avert a shutdown.

Lawmakers left the first meeting of a bipartisan negotiating committee with no agreement on the President’s coveted border wall, but outlined some opening proposals as negotiations begin.

House Democratic negotiators confirmed after the meeting that their opening offer at the start of negotiations does not include any new money for a border wall — the key sticking point in the standoff between Democrats and President Donald Trump, who has demanded $5.7 billion in wall funding.

“If you’re asking if there is any money for the border wall? No, there is not,” Democratic Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard said bluntly at a press conference following the meeting.

Democrats did, however, outline a long list of border security-related initiatives they are willing to fund. Their proposal includes money for 1,000 new customs officers and to hire new Homeland Security agents who can work on issues such as drug smuggling.

House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey said at the news conference that the committee will “work thoughtfully and quickly to produce a compromise,” but would not give a total dollar amount for what Democrats are willing to spend and sidestepped a question about whether Democrats will negotiate over physical barriers.

Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota left the meeting saying, “Everybody talked about the need for funding for a good, strong border security package — that means people, technology and a border barrier — so I’m hopeful we can get to a good solution.”

The clock is ticking to find a deal. Lawmakers only have until February 15 before government funding will once again expire and it is not yet clear they will find a deal to prevent yet another shutdown.

A group of 17 lawmakers on Capitol Hill met for the first time on Wednesday afternoon to kick off the negotiations.

Conference committee meetings are hardly known as blockbuster events on Capitol Hill. But with another shutdown at stake, the room was jam-packed with staffers and reporters from every major media outlet, as more reporters lined the hallways outside the room.

Sen. Pat Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, acknowledged the attention surrounding the meeting.

“Rarely has the work of our appropriations committee been watched as closely as it is today,” the Vermont Democrat said during opening remarks. “The American people are depending on us to get our job done.”

Leahy said later in the day that he had a “huge amount of respect” for his fellow negotiators and that “if left to us, left to the grown-ups in the room, we could get it done in a couple hours.”

Following the first meeting, staffers will continue to work behind the scenes in an effort to broker a deal.

Trump attempted to sway the debate hours before the meeting started, tweeting in the early morning, “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!”

After about 800,000 federal workers went two pay periods without paychecks, Trump agreed Friday to temporarily reopen the government after a 35-day shutdown even though the bill to end it did not include his highest priority, $5.7 billion to build a wall on the southern border. His tweet was a reminder that he could force another shutdown if he opposes Congress’ consensus on border security.

Republican and Democratic congressional leaders urged Trump Wednesday to let the group do its work. Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said, “I think we ought to give them some room to negotiate this.”

When asked if Trump should stay out of the negotiations, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “He should sign the bill.”

“I think a conference committee can reach a good result left to its own devices without interference from anybody else,” the California Democrat told CNN. “I have confidence in the appropriators.”

In a private meeting with freshman Democrats Wednesday, Pelosi did not draw a red line in the spending talks, saying she has faith in the conference negotiators to reach an agreement, according to two attendees. Pelosi also discussed poll numbers showing the President upside down on a number of issues, suggesting Democrats won the argument over the shutdown.

The negotiators are 17 members of the House and Senate who serve on committees to appropriate government funding, dealmakers who rarely come from the hardline elements of either side of the party. Last year, the Senate Appropriations Committee came to a bipartisan agreement on a homeland security bill — that included $1.6 billion in border security including funds for fencing and barrier repairs. But Trump has lately called for much more funding to build the wall.

While the negotiators believe they could come up with a compromise, they went into the meeting not knowing how their respective party’s leadership will ultimately shape the debate.

“My goal would be to fund the government,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby earlier this week. The Alabama Republican added he couldn’t “preclude” whether some immigration proposals, such as extending legal protections to recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, would be negotiated because Trump, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky “might want to get involved.”

On Tuesday, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said that Congress could reach a deal, but “if the President has the last word, it may not be enough” to avert a shutdown.

Trump himself has put the conference committee’s odds of success at “less than 50-50.”

This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.