Nota Lowey and Dick Durbin

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (right), greets Sen. Dick Durbin during a full committee meeting on Homeland Security appropriations Jan. 30, 2019. | M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico

Top Democrats refused to rule out extra funding for some kind of added barrier at the border as congressional deal-makers started negotiations Wednesday aimed at a compromise that could stave off a second shutdown.

The 17 lawmakers appointed to the special conference committee did not reach an agreement during their first meeting on whether they would fund President Donald Trump’s border wall as they try to prevent another funding lapse in two-and-a-half weeks. But Democratic spending leaders said afterward that they will not take a hard line upfront against funding for a border barrier, the specifics of which were not defined.

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“I’m not going to give you the conclusion. We’re going into this conference, and we’re open to everyone’s facts and figures,House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) told reporters after the meeting. “Everything’s on the table.”

Lowey said conferees are ready for “a real intense negotiation period” and are going to bring in experts to advise them on how to direct funding to improve border security.

“We’re going to be evaluating all the facts,” the chairwoman said. “And then we’ll resolve the money.”

Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), now vice-chairman on the House Appropriations Committee, echoed that statement, saying Democrats want to “follow the facts” but can’t “arbitrarily pick a number for a border wall that we don’t feel is effective and allocate the funding for that.”

That sentiment follows on a statement House Democratic Conference Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) made Tuesday, signaling that Democrats could be open to the idea of adding funding for border barriers. “We are willing to support fencing where it makes sense, but it should be done in an evidence-based fashion,” he said.

The conference committee has until Feb. 15 to reach a deal before funding runs out again for nine of 15 federal departments, upon expiration of the continuing resolution that Trump signed Friday to pause the government shutdown.

If the negotiators fail to craft a product that can pass both chambers in that time and earn the president’s signature, funding is likely to lapse again for the departments of Transportation, Agriculture, Homeland Security, Treasury, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, State and Interior, as well as the IRS, National Science Foundation, FDA and EPA.

Trump put the 17 negotiators on notice earlier Wednesday that they are “wasting their time” if they are “not discussing or contemplating” more money for a border wall or physical barrier. But lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are emphasizing investment in border security personnel and technology.

Lowey and the panel’s top Republican, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), both said during the meeting that they want increased money for immigration judges, detection technology and resources to help meet humanitarian needs of migrants, especially children.

Democrats plan to unveil a proposal as early as this week for border security investment, including money for hiring another 1,000 customs officers and buying new imaging technology for land ports, plus repairing and improving Border Patrol stations.

Underlying the talks is a debate about whether to broaden the scope to include deals on issues like the debt limit and immigration policy, or to keep the negotiations limited to increasing funding for various border security efforts.

“We need to go big,” said Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.).

Democrats have so far rejected the idea, however, of giving extra money for a concrete wall as a trade for deportation protections for refugees and young immigrants. And conference negotiations are not expected to produce a big deal on border security or immigration policy.

“It’s just a matter of border security at this moment,” Lowey said.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters before the meeting that he thinks negotiations should “start with ordinary appropriations” and could broaden to include larger policy items, although he prefers to keep a narrower focus. He said the final compromise should, however, include some additional investment in “strategic barriers” along the border.

“Smart technology alone does not actually stop anyone from crossing into the U.S. illegally,” Shelby said.

If Trump opposes the product the conferees craft, Shelby said, it would be “hard” to override the president’s veto, but not impossible. Such an override would require the support of two-thirds of lawmakers in each chamber.

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