SUNLAND PARK, N.M — House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Saturday that Republican and Democratic negotiators were optimistic about reaching a border security deal that would avert another government shutdown.
“Based upon my conversations with members of the conference, I think there was, at least on Thursday, an expectation that they may well be able to get to an agreement, and if they do, I hope as early as Monday we will hear what that agreement is,” Hoyer (D-Md.) said in an interview with The Washington Post after leading a Democratic congressional delegation on a day-long visit to the border in El Paso and southern New Mexico.
Hoyer said he doesn’t know the contours of a potential agreement, including the amount for border barriers that have been at the heart of the stalemate between President Trump and Congress. Negotiators late Friday were closing in on a bipartisan deal that would rebuff Trump’s demands for $5.7 billion for his wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Instead, lawmakers were focused on a compromise that would provide no more than $2 billion for barriers.
It was unclear whether Trump would accept the compromise or follow through on his previous threats to declare a national emergency to build the wall, a move certain to face legal challenges.
Lawmakers have just days to finalize legislation that can pass the House and Senate in time to get it to Trump before the Feb. 15 deadline. Several agencies and departments are operating on a short-term spending bill that Trump signed Jan. 25, ending the longest shutdown in history.
That stopgap bill contained no money for Trump’s wall. The president plans to hold a campaign rally in El Paso on Monday night that is expected to focus on the border wall that Trump repeatedly said during the 2016 campaign that Mexico would finance. Hoyer’s visit was scheduled before Trump announced his rally.
At a news conference after his tour, Hoyer criticized Trump’s rhetoric about the border. “There’s a lot of debate about what we need to do on the border. There was too much hysteria about what we want to do on the border,” he said.
Hoyer said he hasn’t heard anything from the White House on what Trump would agree to beyond his public statements that negotiators were wasting their time, although the president spoke more positively about the negotiations late in the week. Hoyer said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have committed to bring any conference committee agreement to a vote in their respective chambers.
“And I think if McConnell’s going to put it on the floor, he expects it to pass. And we will certainly, I think, expect it to pass,” Hoyer said in his interview with The Post.
Hoyer said the funding bill should include money for aid to the Northern Triangle countries of Central America — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — that are the main source of a surge in family migration to the United States.
“You’re not going to be able to stop them from leaving a place that they believe is a threat to themselves and their families, a mortal threat,” Hoyer said. “And therefore, one of the best ways of reducing those numbers is to make it safer for them to live in their homes, where presumably they would prefer to live and where they grew up and where they know the language and they know their neighbors.”
Accompanying Hoyer on Saturday were Democratic Reps. Veronica Escobar of El Paso, Xochitl Torres Small and Deb Haaland of New Mexico, and Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania. All are freshmen elected in last November’s Democratic wave that gave the party control of the House; Torres Small and Scanlon won seats previously held by Republicans.
At one stop the delegation met a Honduran woman named Yeimi and her 3- and 5-year-old daughters, who were taken from her by Border Patrol agents when they crossed into El Paso in October. They were reunited Friday night. Her lawyer, Taylor Levy, declined to provide Yeimi’s last name but said the family’s story would be detailed at a news conference on Monday.
The delegation also met with groups that provide legal and humanitarian aid to migrants and received a security briefing from Customs and Border Protection officials.
The lawmakers said a key takeaway from their tour was that border security requires a multifaceted approach and can’t be reduced to single solutions such as physical barriers.
“We know that we have bad actors. We have to stop drug smugglers and human traffickers from entering our country. We also know that we need an agency that will continuously adapt to changing threats and circumstances. And that’s why you have to look at the border on a mile-by-mile basis,” said Torres Small, who represents a mostly rural stretch of the border across New Mexico.
Escobar said that despite the ongoing surge of families from Central America seeking asylum in the United States, apprehensions of illegal border crossers remains well below numbers of a decade ago.
“The challenge for me as a border resident is that the powers that be want to paint the border as insecure as a way to make this a political football, so that those who can be tougher on security emerge looking stronger in the eyes of their voters,” Escobar said.
Robert Moore is a freelance journalist based in El Paso.