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Congressional negotiators seek contours of border deal as shutdown looms

President Trump described immigration at the southern border as a "tremendous onslaught" and called on Congress to "protect our homeland" on Feb. 5. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Congressional negotiators worked toward a deal Wednesday that could increase fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border without delivering President Trump the wall money he wants, as pressure built to reach agreement ahead of a government shutdown deadline next week.

A bipartisan committee of House and Senate lawmakers traded offers behind the scenes, with Democrats saying money for border barriers was on the table and Republicans acknowledging they won’t get Trump the $5.7 billion he has sought for his wall.

Lawmakers hope to have a tentative deal by Friday or soon thereafter, to allow time for the legislation to pass the House and Senate by Feb. 15. That’s when funding will run out for a large portion of the federal government, causing another partial shutdown, if Congress and Trump don’t act first.

Leaders of both parties made clear that, after the nation’s longest-ever government shutdown ended late last month with Trump signing a short-term spending bill that included no new money for his wall, they want to reach finality soon to avoid another funding lapse.

Conference committees have negotiated budget deals for years, but these talks are occurring at a moment of high anxiety — and enormous stakes. Lawmakers are loath to revisit another shutdown, but even as they negotiate a possible deal, neither side has any idea what Trump will accept.

In recent weeks, some White House and congressional officials, including presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, have floated the idea of expanding the talks, but the discussions remain narrowly focused.

There is no guarantee that Trump will agree to the deal, raising the prospect of a repeat of late December, when lawmakers thought they had averted a shutdown until the president changed his mind. If a deal emerges but does not swiftly earn Trump’s backing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would face a dilemma over whether to bring it to a vote anyway and potentially force Republicans to decide whether to support legislation that falls short of Trump’s wall.

But few on Capitol Hill are eager to prolong the uncertainty by passing yet another stopgap spending bill. McConnell argued in a private meeting with senators Wednesday against passage of another short-term bill, according to a Republican with knowledge of the exchange who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe it.

“We’ve got to find some place in the middle,” said Rep. Steven M. Palazzo (R-Miss.), who sits on the 17-member conference committee that is trying to produce a deal. “We know the Dems are absolutely not going to do 5.7 [billion dollars]. But what can they do — and what can we accept?”

Committee members declined to divulge details of their negotiations. But after Democrats started out last week offering no money for physical barriers of any kind along the border, House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) — who is leading the conference committee’s negotiations — said Wednesday that “everything is on the table.”

Another committee Democrat, Rep. Henry Cuellar (Tex.), who represents a border district, spoke of enhanced fencing or other types of barriers along portions of the 2,000-mile border — as long as local residents and authorities agree, and sensitive areas such as butterfly habitat are protected.

“I’m hoping we can avoid certain sensitive areas that I’ve mentioned, and we can put language there that they’re going to work with the local entities,” Cuellar told reporters. “If we do that, I’m telling you a lot of these things can be solved by the end. Hence, barriers.”

There already are hundreds of miles of walls and fences of various kinds along the border that lawmakers of both parties have been funding for years. Trump’s $5.7 billion request would build 230 additional miles of steel barriers.

Trump’s advisers are hopeful that congressional negotiators can reach a deal, but he has not shown any willingness to back down from his insistence that taxpayer money be used to construct parts of a wall along the border with Mexico. The president renewed his demands for a wall in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, and he is expected to make the case again during a rally Monday in El Paso.

Inside the Capitol, there is cautious optimism that the conference committee, which is stacked with experienced negotiators from both parties, can reach a deal. But members acknowledge they cannot be certain that Trump will support their product, especially after his change of heart in late December.

Trump has dismissed the committee’s negotiations as a “waste of time” and suggested that he might declare a national emergency that he said would allow him to circumvent Congress and use the military to build his wall.

Many Republicans are opposed to that approach, saying it would set a bad precedent for future Democratic presidents and could put GOP lawmakers in the uncomfortable position of having to vote on a resolution overturning the emergency declaration.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he believed lawmakers should find a legislative solution.

“I think the president was very clear even last night that we are a legislative body, and we should use our power to solve this,” McCarthy said, referring to the State of the Union speech. “He has a responsibility as well to protect this nation, but he’s giving us the time to get the job done. . . . I believe at the end of the day we should get this done legislatively, and I’m looking forward to making that happen.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she thinks House and Senate negotiators could reach a deal by the end of this week if “left to their own devices.” She said that she would be willing to support any compromise on border security that they produce and that she has urged the White House to adopt the same “hands-off” posture.

Pelosi said she relayed to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), one of the lead negotiators, that “whatever you all come to an agreement on, bipartisan agreement, I will support it.”

She added that she had relayed her hope to Vice President Pence “that the White House will have the same hands-off policy as I have vis-a-vis the appropriators.”

Shelby later said that Pelosi did not promise to put the committee’s possible work product on the House floor but “said she would like to see a legislative solution, the sooner the better.”

Republicans suggest Trump won’t get all the wall money he wants — but they are unclear about what he wants

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus released a letter to members of the conference committee Wednesday asking them to oppose spending increases for Trump’s wall or for immigrant detention. “The Trump administration has carried out its anti-immigrant agenda with appropriated funds from Congress,” the letter says.

Shelby and other Republicans on the conference committee organized a closed-door briefing Wednesday with Border Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Protection representatives that Democrats agreed to attend. The briefers were career professionals, including Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost, as opposed to Trump administration political appointees.

But the briefing didn’t appear to produce any breakthroughs, and Democrats on the conference committee said the briefers seemed determined to support Trump’s $5.7 billion request for the wall.

In an echo of some of the arguments often heard from Trump, Shelby said that there was discussion in the briefing about how “terrorists are coming across the border, not just people looking for a better way of life . . . but people who could really do us harm” from “all over the world.”

In a statement Wednesday, Michael Glassner, chief operating officer for Trump’s reelection campaign, said that El Paso was chosen as a rally site to highlight the president’s message.

“As the president continues his fight to secure our border, there’s no better place to demonstrate that walls work than in El Paso,” Glassner said. “President Trump looks forward to visiting with the patriots of Texas who are on the front lines of the struggle against open border Democrats who allow drugs, crime, and sex trafficking all along our border every day.”

Glassner’s statement echoed a claim made by Trump during his State of the Union address that the construction of a “powerful barrier” along the border in El Paso had dramatically reduced violent crime.

In a fact check, the El Paso Times found that the crime rate had fallen long before the construction of fencing authorized under President George W. Bush and completed in mid-2009.

Pence on Wednesday defended Trump’s tactic of shutting down the federal government in a bid to gain leverage for border wall funding and said he could not guarantee that another closure would be averted next week.

Damian Paletta, Seung Min Kim and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.