Trump, Democrats Still at Impasse Over Border Wall
-By Jim Owen
President Trump and congressional Democrats continue to debate whether to include border wall funding in legislation to keep the government operating.
The two sides agreed last month to a temporary solution, without any money for the wall, that reopened a number of federal departments following a record-setting 35-day shutdown. However, another deadline is looming on Feb. 15. If there is no resolution to the budget fight by then, hundreds of thousands of government employees could once again find themselves either on furloughs or working without pay.
Trump Remains Firm on the Wall
Ever since launching his presidential campaign nearly four years ago, Trump has been consistent in promising to erect a barrier along the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border. He claims the wall is needed to stem the flow of undocumented immigrants.
Trump’s base is determined to see the barrier erected. There were howls of protest in January, when the president signed the appropriations bill without border wall funding that reopened the government for three weeks. Conservative author and commentator Ann Coulter called Trump a “wimp,” while radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh also lashed out at the apparent capitulation to Democrats.
The president responded by doubling down on his advocacy for the wall, though he has given up on his previous demand that Mexico pay for the project. Trump declared that when the three-week period ended, he would hold out for a new spending bill earmarking U.S. taxpayers’ money for the wall.
Democrats insist that the barrier is not necessary. They claim to be in favor of increased border security, but only in the form of more advanced technology and additional law-enforcement officers.
The number of undocumented immigrants attempting to enter the country has increased in recent months due to deteriorating conditions in Central and South America. Residents of Honduras, Guatemala, Venezuela, and other countries are fleeing violence and persecution inflicted by their governments and criminal gangs. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that no national border on Earth divides countries with such extreme income disparities.
The president warns that some of the migrants are criminals and terrorists and that others take jobs away from U.S. workers. He argues that without adequate border protection, American sovereignty is at risk.
The Pentagon recently announced that 3,750 more troops were on their way to the border. The mission is to place concertina wire on 150 miles of the international boundary and provide assistance to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. The deployment expanded the military presence on the border to 4,350 personnel.
What Happens on Feb. 15?
The House of Representatives, where Democrats are in the majority, is certain to pass legislation – without border wall funding – to keep the government running after the upcoming deadline. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has united her party members in opposing the barrier.
The Senate, which is under Republican control, also appears to be wavering on the issue. Some GOP lawmakers from Democrat-leaning and swing states worry that aligning themselves too closely with Trump regarding the border wall might endanger their hopes for re-election. Politicians of both parties faced a backlash from government workers and other voters who suffered during the shutdown.
The president strongly hinted that he may declare a national emergency on Feb. 15 if Congress fails to provide the $5.7 billion he wants for the wall. The declaration would enable Trump to use money from the Pentagon and other government departments to erect the barrier.
Democrats are likely to delay such a move by filing lawsuits. They deny there is a crisis on the border that qualifies for a national emergency and warn that a future Democratic president could use the same power to declare a crisis concerning another issue like climate change.
Negotiations Under Way
A 17-member, Senate-House conference committee has been holding meetings in an attempt to come up with a compromise. However, Democrats on the panel refuse to budge when it comes to the wall. Though they have supported $1.3 billion for fences or other types of barriers in the past, they are now determined to block any such funding.
Conference committee Democrats reportedly are willing to vote for a $98 million increase for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency to hire a thousand additional officers and spend $400 million on enhanced technology.
Trump told The New York Times that the negotiations are “a waste of time.” When asked about whether he would declare a national emergency, the president pledged to not take any option “off the table.” He repeated his concern that criminals, drug smugglers, and human traffickers pose such a large threat that only a wall will stop them.
On CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” Trump blasted Pelosi. He called the speaker “very bad for our country,” and accused her of favoring “open borders” while playing political “games.”
A conference committee consists of members of each house and members of both parties. The panel’s purpose is to iron out differences between House and Senate versions of the legislation and issue a conference report detailing the components of a new bill that can pass both houses.
If that happens in this case, and Trump vetoes the measure, the Senate could override the veto with a 67 percent vote. That means 20 Republicans would have to side with the 45 Democrats and two independent senators in opposing Trump.
When a conference committee fails to reach an agreement, there is another way to end a congressional stalemate. Called a “message between houses” or the “ping pong,” the process entails either the Senate or House passing a bill and sending it to the other house. If the second chamber makes amendments, the measure returns to its original source. Back and forth it goes until one house or the other ultimately accepts a version without any changes.
The goal in the coming weeks is to find consensus on a new continuing resolution, replacing the temporary one that went into effect last month, to keep the government operating through the end of 2019. Funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which would be responsible for building the wall, is the only significant issue dividing Republicans and Democrats.
Democrat Nita Lowrey, the head of the House Appropriations Committee, is chairing the conference committee. Other prominent members of the bicameral panel include Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee; Texas Rep. Kay Granger, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee; and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Among others involved in the negotiations are the chairmen and ranking members of the Homeland Security appropriations subcommittees in both houses. They are Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif.; Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn.; and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
According to Fox News, two of the most influential members of the conference committee are Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who is known for his ability to work with the opposing party; and Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California, a staunch liberal whom insiders see as Pelosi’s voice on the panel.
Following a public session in which the lawmakers made their opening statements, the committee began meeting behind closed doors. Under Senate rules, such talks must feature only germane issues. Lawmakers are not supposed to exploit the process to advance priorities unrelated to matters on the table.
However, there has been speculation that the committee might debate a range of immigration issues in an effort to craft a continuing resolution that can garner the requisite number of votes in Congress as well as the president’s signature. Trump has shown some flexibility on the question of whether to continue the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows undocumented foreigners who came to the United States as minors to stay in the country under certain conditions.
The problem is that DACA is complicated. Congressional Republicans and Democrats told Fox News that there may not be enough time to deal with the issue before the Feb. 15 deadline. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, predicted that the compromise bill will not address DACA. GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he will back “whatever works” to keep the government open.
Though the committee intends to focus solely on the Homeland Security budget, it might have to renegotiate previously agreed-upon spending plans for other departments to create a continuing resolution that both sides can support. Fox News suggested that Democrats could demand more money for their pet projects in exchange for additional Homeland Security funding.
There is a limit to how much spending the committee can approve. Lawmakers may exceed budget caps enacted eight years ago only by declaring their own emergency, which no one expects to happen.
There is almost universal consensus that the outcome of the dispute will be a spending resolution lacking any reference to a border wall. Democrats will probably back increased spending for measures designed to curb illegal immigration, but they seem committed to denying Trump the 2,000-mile-long barrier that he has promised his supporters.