The US’s historic 35-day government shutdown ended Friday (Jan. 25) with a whimper, after Donald Trump agreed to reopen it for three weeks to let Congress do the impossible—reconcile the president’s demands for a wall on the US’s southern border with Democrats’ refusal to fund vb one.
Now, a group of eight Republicans and nine Democrats from Congress’s appropriations committees, responsible for how the federal budget is allocated, will try to hammer out an agreement before Feb. 15.
Talks aren’t expected to be simple. After all, for the plan to work “Trump needs to walk away with some sort of a win, and so does [Nancy] Pelosi,” as one Congressional aide put it to Quartz. However, there’s room for compromise to be found, White House and Congressional sources say.
The “Conference Committee” includes Congress members with years of experience reviewing Homeland Security budgets, like North Carolina Democrat David Price, as well as a Republican and a Democrat from Texas, the state with the longest border with Mexico. The most strident voices on immigration issues have been left out of the talks.
The panel will hold a public meeting on Wednesday afternoon (Jan. 30), where representatives from both sides will explain their goals. Then they’re expected to do the rest of their negotiating in private.
What’s on offer
The group will attempt to reconcile the House’s earlier offer to match 2018’s border security budget of $1.6 billion with the president’s demands of some $5.7 billion for his border wall.
Pelosi joked in January that she would give Trump “one dollar” for the wall, and then took that back, saying, “The wall is an immorality between countries. It’s an old way of thinking [and] it isn’t cost-effective.” Trump threatened this weekend to shut the government down again if he doesn’t get the money he wants, and said that he gives the Congressional discussions “less than 50-50” chance of succeeding.
However, that isn’t as bleak as it may seem.
Pelosi has “drawn a line that a wall is immoral, but a fence is not a wall,” said the Congressional Democratic aide. “There’s some wiggle room here with what we can do.” Democrats are “not going to let $5 billion go through” to fund a wall on the border, he said, but that amount might pass for “border security”
“There are lots of things we would support,” a second Democratic Congressional aide told Quartz. That includes money for aircraft for Customs and Border Protection, and for technology to detect people crossing between ports of entry.
“Are we saying ‘Zero money for any physical barrier, anywhere?’ No,” he said. “We don’t think it is cost effective,” however, and there are better ways to make the border secure. One thing he was sure of though—“no money for a concrete wall anywhere.”
When questioned specifically about the $5.7 billion for the wall at the White House today, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said any deal should include “real and adequate funding for border security including funding for a wall,” suggesting the amount could be negotiable.
Trump has also softened his position on what a “wall” should be in recent months. In a speech ending the shutdown in the White House Rose Garden on Jan. 25, he emphasized, “We do not need 2,000 miles of concrete wall from sea to shining sea. We never did, we never proposed that, we never wanted that.” There are “natural structures that are as good as anything that we can build,” Trump said, adding “our proposed structures will be in pre-determined high-risk locations that have been specifically identified by the Border Patrol to stop illicit flows of people and drugs.”
He also spoke Jan. 25 of increasing “drug-detection technology and manpower” to modernize ports of entry, and providing humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers on the border—both issues that the Democrats want.
What’s not on offer
Since Trump has been in office, members of Congress from both sides have crafted big-picture immigration bills that include a pathway to citizenship for the approximately 1 million US residents brought to the country illegally as children, known as Dreamers or DACA recipients.
Meanwhile, the White House, and particularly Trump, has proposed overhauling the US’s immigration framework completely, to curb so-called “chain migration,” which prioritizes relatives of US residents over other immigrants (that’s how Trump’s mother came to America, incidentally), and sets new education hurdles for immigrants.
Neither of these ideas are likely to be discussed in the Conference Committee, Congressional aides said. The panel will confine itself specifically to how the Department of Homeland Security budget should be allocated and spent, because that’s what appropriations committees do in Congress. Any other sweeping changes would need to be addressed by Judiciary or other committees.
A return to compromise?
The “Congressional Conference” panel that’s meeting this week isn’t an anomaly: such panels are a normal part of the US budget-making process. However, they traditionally debate spending levels and specific allocations long before a budget has expired, rather than after a shutdown that left 800,000 workers without paychecks for more than a month.
The parties take turns leading these panels, every time the Senate and House need to reconcile a bill, and now it’s the Democrats’ turn. If successful, they’ll hammer out an agreement that isn’t likely to be exactly what anyone wants, but will be something that Republicans, Democrats, and Trump can live with.
In short, they’re embarking on the wonky, often tedious, discussions that are the bread and butter of US policy making. Trump and many of his White House aides have shown little affinity for trudging through these types of discussions. Following the historic shutdown that most Americans blamed Trump for, the administration has acknowledged it can’t govern on its own. This means the on-the-ground reality of a key Trump presidential pledge, the border wall, will ultimately be decided by Congress.