Congress Just Wants to Be Left Alone

As House and Senate lawmakers begin their border-security talks, they’ve managed to agree on at least one thing.

From left: Senator Patrick Leahy, Senator Richard Shelby, and Representative Nita Lowey greet one another at Wednesday’s conference-committee meeting at the Capitol.
From left: Senator Patrick Leahy, Senator Richard Shelby, and Representative Nita Lowey greet one another at Wednesday’s conference-committee meeting at the Capitol. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

The group of bipartisan lawmakers tasked with reaching a deal on border security has only just begun its work. But as President Donald Trump’s border-wall demands hang over the deliberations like a storm cloud, members seem to have agreed on one fundamental principle: They’d like to be left alone.

Asked by reporters on Wednesday whether he would prefer that Trump not get involved in the negotiations, the Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said, “If our respective caucuses would task us, Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, to get this done … I bet we’d do it by tomorrow night.” The Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking member on the Senate committee, echoed that sentiment during the group’s first meeting: “Left alone,” he said, “we could get this done very quickly.”

The lawmakers are unlikely to get their wish. As Shelby suggested to reporters, any deal that the conference committee develops will eventually need to go before the broader House and Senate, and legislators will likely be watching to see how the president responds. Trump, of course, will ultimately need to sign off on the group’s plan—if he doesn’t scuttle the negotiations with a state of emergency declaration in the meantime.

Shelby and Leahy are among the eight Republicans and nine Democrats from the House and Senate Appropriations Committees charged with working out an agreement to fund the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees protection of the southern border. On Friday, the president signed a stopgap funding measure to end the 35-day government shutdown over his wall demands, and to fund the government through February 15. If the committee cannot reach a deal on border security that is acceptable to the president by then, another partial shutdown could happen. Alternatively, Trump has said he could declare a national emergency to unlock funding for the wall, an idea that many of his fellow Republicans, not to mention Democrats, have opposed. According to The Washington Post’s reporting, a meeting at the White House might happen on Thursday between Republican members of the committee and the president.

Trump didn’t rule out going the emergency route in an interview over the weekend with The Wall Street Journal, during which he also expressed doubt about the committee’s ability to make the deadline. “I personally think it’s less than 50-50, but you have a lot of very good people on that board,” Trump told the Journal. In a tweet on Thursday morning, he took a more dire view of the group’s prospects: “Republicans on the Homeland Security Committee are wasting their time,” Trump wrote. “Democrats, despite all of the evidence, proof and Caravans coming, are not going to give money to build the DESPERATELY needed WALL.”

Nevertheless, at the committee meeting on Wednesday afternoon, lawmakers sounded optimistic, extolling the bipartisan nature of the appropriations process and their fellow members. “There’s good people in that conference committee,” Senator Jon Tester of Montana, a moderate Democrat on the committee, told reporters. “I think we can come to an amiable conclusion if we’re left to our own device.” In her opening remarks to the group, Democratic Representative Nita Lowey of New York, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, said she was confident that the conferees would reach a compromise, citing the “proud tradition” of the two appropriations committees. “We’re setting the stage as to how the new Congress … can or cannot function,” Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri said at the meeting. “This is our first real opportunity to show that we can do our job.”

But despite lawmakers’ stated eagerness to resolve the border battle, reaching a deal that satisfies all parties involved—including the president—will be as difficult as it was during the government shutdown, if not impossible. There is still a clear dissonance between the two parties’ priorities. Most of the Republicans on the committee urged in its inaugural meeting that any successful deal on border security would need to involve three components: the hiring of new personnel, investment in new technology, and as the president has required, the construction of some kind of physical barrier.

Democrats, on the other hand, were reticent to endorse any such barrier, as they have been since the start of the shutdown at the end of December. Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas, whose district reaches the southern border, told the committee that he would be open-minded throughout the negotiations, except in one key area: He won’t support giving the president money for a wall, a fence, or any other border structure. “A wall is the 14th-century solution to the 21st-century issues that we have on the border,” Cuellar said.

The House Democrats’ initial proposal outline, presented by Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard of California to reporters after the meeting, included no provisions for a wall or fencing of any kind. “We will push for a smart, effective border-security posture, one that does not rely on costly physical barriers,” the proposal stated.

This opening offer could be interpreted as just that—an opening, a mere starting point for the deliberations to come. Or, it could be a sign that the group won’t be able to get past the one issue that’s stymied negotiations all along. Asked on Wednesday whether she was concerned about the proposal, given Trump’s insistence on funding for a physical wall, Lowey smiled.

“The president wasn’t here,” she replied.