WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — With just over two weeks until government offices that were just reopened are set to run out of money again, a bipartisan committee tasked with crafting a border security compromise that can win the approval of both Congress and the president met for the first time Wednesday.
Even though the stalemate over President Donald Trump’s request for $5.7 billion to fund border wall construction triggered the longest government shutdown in history, Republicans on Capitol Hill remained optimistic that common ground could be reached by the Feb. 15 deadline.
“We understand we don’t want to go into another shutdown,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. “That would not be good for the country. There’s no reason in the world we can’t work out an agreement to fund this government. It makes no sense to me whatsoever.”
About a quarter of the government was shut down for 35 days as Trump demanded nearly $6 billion for the wall and Democrats only offered to appropriate $1.3 billion for fencing and other security measures. Last Friday, Trump agreed to a three-week continuing resolution to fund the agencies through Feb. 15 while lawmakers negotiate border security funding.
Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Mich., said Republicans and Democrats should be able to rise above partisan politics and agree that more manpower, better technology, and more physical barriers are all necessary to prevent human traffickers, terrorists, and drug smugglers from taking advantage of unsecured borders.
“My hope is that people of good will in both parties can get together and resolve to have a win-win where it says let’s get the best technology security strategy together and then let’s fund it so it benefits America and we discontinue the status quo, which is putting peoples’ lives at risk,” Moolenaar said.
Freshman Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Va., acknowledged he might be overly optimistic in expecting the conference committee will yield results, but he believes a comprehensive border security strategy that includes some walls is “common sense.”
“It seems like politics are trumping the American people right now and its trumping what’s right for the United States and it is a little bit concerning to me,” he said.
President Trump reiterated on Twitter that he still expects the final deal to include substantial new funding for physical barriers at the southern border.
“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!” he wrote early Wednesday morning.
After the last shutdown left hundreds of thousands of federal workers without paychecks for a month, some turning to soup kitchens and food pantries to feed their families, lawmakers have little appetite for another prolonged closure next month. President Trump and his aides have made clear he is not ruling out another shutdown, but he has also stressed he has the option of declaring the situation at the border a national emergency and diverting funds from other projects to build a wall.
“We're going to work with the Democrats. We're going to see,” Trump told reporters during a meeting with Hispanic pastors at the White House Friday. “And if we can't do that, then we'll do -- obviously we're going to do the emergency, because that's what it is. It's a national emergency.”
That prospect, which is sure to face legal challenges, has drawn mixed responses from Republicans. Some have encouraged Trump to sidestep Democratic obstruction, while others have warned of the precedent it could set for future presidents.
“If White House and Congress fail to reach a deal then President @realDonaldTrump must act through emergency powers to build wall/barrier,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tweeted earlier this week.
Democrats maintain the notion of a border crisis was dreamed up by the White House to fulfill Trump’s campaign promises, but Republicans insist the situation truly is dire.
“When you have 140,000 people apprehended illegally trying to get into the country in two months, you have a serious problem,” Roe said.
Republicans say a barrier that deters people from trying to make the dangerous trek through Central America would also serve a humanitarian purpose and possibly save lives.
“There’s a humanitarian crisis at the border where because we aren’t enforcing our borders, people are coming up in caravans and putting families and children at risk,” Moolenaar said. “The status quo isn’t acceptable and we need to make changes.”
Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., who visited the border recently with several other members, said law enforcement officials and civilians there made clear how physical barriers can help stem the flow of illegal immigration, drugs, and human trafficking.
“It’s a horrible situation,” he said. “When you talk to these people seeing it firsthand, it’s unbelievable.”
He explained walls would help channel migrants and traffickers to areas where Border Patrol agents can more easily detain them.
“We need to be build more wall,” Griffith said. “We need more electronic equipment. Everything people said we ought to do, we ought to do it all. Its going to cost some money but securing our border is worth the expenditure.”
In a Fox News op-ed highlighted by the White House, former DHS special agent Timothy Ballard argued a wall is vital for protecting Central American children from traffickers.
“The wall would undoubtedly be a significant barrier to entrance into the black market of child sex trafficking, thus decreasing kidnappers and traffickers’ incentives in the first place,” Ballard wrote.
Democrats were firmly united throughout the shutdown on refusing to negotiate on border security until the government reopened, but their stance is less concrete as talks resume. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has been adamant in her view that Trump’s wall is “an immorality,” but other top Democrats have signaled more openness to including physical barriers in a border security package.
“When I talk to rank-and-file Democrats who are listening to their constituents, most of them recognize, even [House Majority Leader] Steny Hoyer, the number two Democrat, has said a physical barrier makes sense to him,” Moolenaar said.
Even if lawmakers cannot reach a consensus that would satisfy Trump, Riggleman expects the president’s most likely course of action would be to take matters into his own hands rather than allowing a second shutdown.
“I believe we are going to come to some kind of agreement,” he said. “If we don’t in three weeks, I think the president will declare a national emergency.”