Shutdown Talks Team Stacked With Deal Makers, Not Bomb Throwers

(Bloomberg) -- House and Senate lawmakers charged with crafting a compromise to bridge the divide over border security are more used to cutting deals than taking hard-edged positions on immigration, a sign that leaders of both parties are in no mood for another government shutdown.

But President Donald Trump will need to sign off on any final agreement, and his public pronouncements indicate he’s sticking with his insistence for $5.7 billion for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, a demand that led to the historic five-week partial shutdown.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who’ll be directing negotiations behind the scenes, picked 17 spending panel members well versed in the art of compromise.

Shutdown Talks Team Stacked With Deal Makers, Not Bomb Throwers

One member of the conference committee, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, cautioned that party leaders and the president will be calling the shots for the group.

“As we negotiate we will be dealing with the president’s advisers, if not the president himself," Shelby said. If committee members had gotten the go-ahead from party leaders to reach an agreement themselves, he said, “I think we could do it” -- but they haven’t.  

Spending End-Run

The negotiators have an intense struggle ahead, given Trump’s unflagging position. The president asked Sunday in a tweet, “Does anybody really think I won’t build a WALL?” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted Monday that Trump doesn’t want another shutdown, but said another unpalatable outcome could come: executive action to build a wall that lawmakers see as an end-run around their power to make budget decisions.

“There has to be real and adequate funding for border security, including funding for a wall, and we will see what the conference comes back with,” Sanders said.

Leaders in both parties are setting early sights on a pared-down deal that probably won’t include big immigration law changes, such as future citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and will focus on fencing rather than a wall to secure the southern border.

“If logic prevails,” Trump will embrace fencing as a term interchangeable with a wall, said GOP Senator John Cornyn of Texas, an adviser to McConnell’s leadership team who isn’t in the negotiating group.

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democratic leader and one of the negotiators, was dismissive when asked if a final deal could include a solution to the status of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, who are known as dreamers.

Small Deal

“Not with this president,” Durbin said, adding that the presence of hard-line administration aides like White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller makes it too difficult to bring in other issues. Still, the senator said he’s optimistic a small deal can come together because Appropriations panel members are used to compromising.

The House-Senate conference committee will convene Wednesday to start negotiating a Homeland Security department spending bill for the rest of fiscal 2019. They aim to draft a compromise on border security that can get Trump’s signature and clear the way for Congress to pass six other spending bills to fund the rest of the departments and agencies affected by the shutdown until Oct. 1.

Current funding for those agencies ends on Feb. 15.

Almost all the lawmakers in the group are known for their expertise on budget and spending matters.

“We have people there who are grownups,” said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a member of the conference committee. “These are good people in both parties.”

Another member, Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, said she doesn’t think the group will need three weeks to reach a deal. “I am optimistic. We know the topic well, all of us,” she said.

Flexible Approaches

The Republicans, particularly in the Senate, have a history of pushing for flexible approaches on securing the border, and some have pressed Trump to move away from his wall demand. Many of the Democrats have for years favored sizable investments in border fencing, technology and enforcement personnel.

Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat on the conference committee, said Democrats shouldn’t rule out fencing in more areas along the border. “I just want to make sure we have something that takes care of border security,” he said.

Senate GOP negotiators will be led by Shelby, who urged Trump not to pursue a shutdown in December and wanted him to accept $1.6 billion for border fencing. Capito, who leads the Homeland Security subcommittee, also opposed the shutdown and its effects on federal workers in her state. She and Tester worked on the draft $1.6 billion compromise last year.

Senate negotiator Roy Blunt of Missouri is a member of the GOP leadership team and has been an inside-the-room deal-cutter for more than a decade. He has urged lawmakers to raise the debt ceiling and next year’s budget caps as part of an agreement.

Blunt dismissed a question about whether Republicans would stand up against Trump if another shutdown looks likely, calling it “very hypothetical” although the president has said it’s possible.

Senator John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, was a lead author of a 2013 Senate-passed bipartisan immigration overhaul. That measure, never considered in the House, included $38 billion in border security funds and a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Among the Senate Democratic negotiators, Durbin is the original sponsor of the Dream Act that would allow citizenship for young undocumented immigrants. He also is close to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a top White House negotiator on the border dispute. The two worked together to pass a criminal-sentencing overhaul last year.

Government Bonds

On the House side, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy appointed four members who favor border barriers, though none are among the immigration hard-liners such as House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina.

Representative Kay Granger of Texas, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, and the lead Democratic negotiator, Chairwoman Nita Lowey of New York, worked together for years to craft the annual State Department spending bill.

GOP Representatives Tom Graves of Georgia and Steven Palazzo of Mississippi are the conference committee members most enthusiastic about a wall. Palazzo co-authored a bill to allow government bonds to pay for the wall and let citizens contribute to the funding.

In addition to Lowey, the half-dozen House Democratic negotiators include Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, leader of the Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security. Last week she drafted proposals to spend at least $5.7 billion on border security, including more immigration judges. She is a prominent advocate for aiding the “dreamer” immigrants.

Conservative House Republicans say they and the White House aren’t ready to go big on immigration law changes. Meadows said the “sweet spot” probably centers on “new fencing” and not replacement of existing barriers.

“I don’t see it as a big package,” he added.

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