Congress

Border, homeland security deal could come over weekend

Members said they would use the weekend to resolve remaining concerns and aim to have legislative text on Monday

Cuellar wants five border areas off-limits to barrier construction. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House and Senate negotiators were planning to work through the weekend to reach a border security deal that would clear the way for a final fiscal 2019 spending package.

A House-Senate conference committee on a Homeland Security bill had been hoping to reach an agreement by Friday. But members said they would probably use the weekend to resolve all remaining concerns, with the goal of producing legislative text on Monday.

“We need the time to make sure that what we’re agreeing to is what we really need,” said Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee. While conferees want a bill drafted by Monday, she said, “We still have some work to do.”

Rep. Steven M. Palazzo, R-Miss., a conference committee member, said he expects a deal will be reached “before the end of the weekend” and that aid for disaster victims would be included. “We’re going to have a disaster supplemental for the affected areas,” he said. “That’s for sure.”

Watch:As lawmakers begin to hash out border security, how do conference committees work?

 

The House earlier this year passed a $14.2 billion aid package for victims of hurricanes, wildfires, typhoons and other recent natural disasters; Senate Republicans unveiled their own $12.8 billion version following House passage, but it hasn't advanced to a Senate floor vote.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said Democrats were waiting to hear Republicans respond to their latest proposal. “We’re working as best we can to find that middle ground,” she said.

Fewer beds, more barriers?

By all accounts, lawmakers are close to completing a deal that would give President Donald Trump something less than the $5.7 billion he has been seeking this year for a southern border wall. But the White House could win something larger than the $1.6 billion for border barriers Democrats had previously offered as part of a bipartisan Senate bill last year.

"I've seen the Democratic and the latest Republican offer ... I can tell you this for sure, it's not 5.7 billion dollars for a wall; it's not anywhere close," said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, a member of the House-Senate conference committee.

House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said he's hoping negotiators settle on a number for physical barriers that is "north" of $2 billion.

Fleischmann said it's possible Republicans accept less money for migrant detention beds in exchange for more for physical barriers. "The talk has been very heavy about the [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] beds," he told reporters.

"I'm guessing that would be where the Democrats would be coming from, when the Republicans would be saying, 'Look, give us more money for the wall and higher ICE beds.'"

Trump wants enough bed space to house an average daily population of 52,000 migrant detainees; House Democrats want to cut that to 35,520 for the rest of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, phasing out family detention completely by then. A bipartisan Senate version of the Homeland Security bill, approved last June on a 26-5 vote, would have provided funding for 40,520 detention beds.

Cuellar said he's also focused on keeping five border areas off-limits to barrier construction: 1 mile in and around the area SpaceX is building a commercial launch facility, near Brownsville, Texas; 2.8 miles within and north of the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge; 0.57 miles of the La Lomita Historic Park; 0.65 miles within and north of the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park; and 0.64 miles in and around the National Butterfly Center.

"All I'm saying is, can y'all respect the local communities," Cuellar said.

'Not just a fence'

Fleischmann said members of the conference committee have been told to stay in town over the weekend to be able to sign a conference report "because of the closeness of the deal."

Details on the precise dollar amount and the type of construction to be allowed on the barrier were still being negotiated. “It’s not just numbers,” Granger said. “It’s not just a fence. It is a fence and all that comes with it.”

One GOP conferee, Tom Graves of Georgia, was a little more circumspect than others about how close the negotiators are. "I'm not optimistic, but I'm hopeful," he said. "We've been working in good faith, I hope the other side does as well. And that they don't try to overreach at the 11th hour, which they may have a tendency to do."

Democratic leaders have expressed similar concerns about the willingness of Trump to sign what the conferees can produce, and what passes both chambers. They point to previous Trump reversals, such as his refusal to sign a six-week stopgap in December, which led to the 35-day partial government shutdown.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said if there's a deal and Speaker Nancy Pelosi brings it to the floor, he expects there'll be enough bipartisan votes for it to pass. He also dismissed concerns that Trump would not sign a bipartisan deal.

"I do believe at the end of the day we'll all be in the same place," McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters. But, he added, “It would be in my opinion right that we know where the president stands before we vote on this."

Cuellar, Fleischmann and Graves are among those headed to Camp David Friday to meet with White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to discuss the legislative agenda.

"They didn't say what we're going to talk about, but I'm sure this topic is going to come up ," Cuellar said, adding that Mulvaney is a "good man" who he can get along with.

Congress must pass a final spending package by Feb. 15 to avoid another partial government shutdown when a stopgap funding measure runs dry. A deal would encompass the seven unfinished appropriations bills for fiscal 2019 that amount to about $320 billion in discretionary spending:

Homeland Security, Agriculture, Financial Services, Transportation-HUD, State-Foreign Operations, Commerce-Justice-Science, and Interior-Environment.

Lindsey McPherson, Jennifer Shutt, Paul M. Krawzak and Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.

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