Same wall fight, new Democratic swagger: U.S. lawmakers start border deal talks

Republican and Democratic legislators touch gloves again on Wednesday. Only this time, Democrats could feel even more emboldened to stand firm against a president who already faced down challengers of his border wall — and blinked.

House, Senate negotiators hold first meeting since Trump 'cave-in' ended shutdown

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speak after U.S. President Donald Trump announced a deal to end the partial government shutdown on Jan. 25. On Wednesday, Democratic negotiators who are meeting with Republicans to hammer out a new border-security deal might be coming from a position of strength. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

U.S. Republican and Democratic legislators touch gloves again on Wednesday. Only this time, Democrats could feel even more emboldened to stand firm against a president who already faced down challengers of his border wall — and blinked.

A special bipartisan committee of lawmakers from the Senate and the House meets Wednesday morning to begin hashing out a deal on border security as a Feb. 15 deadline draws nearer.

It's the first time the bicameral panel will meet since congressional leaders and President Donald Trump last Friday announced a three-week deal with Democrats led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Behind-the-scenes talks among the members of the panel have already begun.

Last Friday's stop-gap spending plan reopened the government — without meeting Trump's demands for $5.7 billion to build a southern border wall — after a record 35-day partial government shutdown.

During that time, Trump threatened to declare a national emergency to secure military funds for his wall and suffered slumping approval ratings. The pressure was apparently too much for the president last week, as he capitulated to reopen the government without getting his wall money.

Democratic strategist Kevin Walling believes that could reinforce a narrative that will colour the next round of negotiations.

As Walling put it: "Trump lost. Pelosi won."

White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney listens as Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House on Jan. 2. Mulvaney says Trump is prepared for another government shutdown if Congress won't work with him to secure the southern border. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

"Nothing substantial has shifted in the mechanics" of the discussions since then, he noted. But the Democratic caucus is relatively unified, while cracks have emerged among Republicans.

In a Senate vote last week, at least two Republican senators up for re-election in 2020 defected and sided with a Democratic proposal to reopen the government without Trump's wall money.

"What I see in terms of a major calculus change heading into the next round is the defections and pressure from key GOP senators," Walling said.

'Pelosi Trumps Trump'

Conservative media wasn't much kinder to the president. The Washington Examiner lamented "Trump's cave-in," and Fox News carried the headline "Pelosi trumps Trump."

Wednesday's meeting is a formal move by the House and Senate to work out disagreements, though the conferences won't have independent authority. The White House and congressional leaders will have significant heft.

This step is for deciding the initial stages of what might be a palatable deal.

Unless the 17 members of the conference committee can hammer out a new agreement by Feb. 15, another shutdown will begin for some 800,000 federal workers.

"If one were to begin again, this would be like Day 36 of the shutdown — not Day 1," said Matt Glassman, a senior fellow with the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. "Republican leaders are completely uninterested in another shutdown."

Trump announces a deal to temporarily reopen the government, in the Rose Garden of the White House on Friday. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Recent polls have indicated most Americans blamed Trump and the Republicans for the failure to appropriate funds to keep the government running.

Glassman suspects Republicans submitting any new proposal will drop what Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer termed "poison pill" changes — provisions included by Trump in an earlier offer that would have tightened the laws on asylum claims.

Democrats have polling on their side. Even so, overconfidence about how much they should be willing to bend is politically risky. That's because blame for the next shutdown, if there is one, "will probably be shouldered more equally by Democrats and President Trump," warned Wendy Schiller, who chairs the political science department at Brown University.

'Giving you nothing' is not good enough

She said Democrats believing themselves to be in a position of strength should know the American public is sick of this stalemate, "and have to look like they've come some distance to the president — not just stand firm and say, 'We're giving you nothing.'"

An offer tempting to some Democrats might involve the trade-off of a wall for a pathway to citizenship for the "Dreamers," young people brought to the country illegally as children. But such a deal would enrage immigration hardliners in Trump's base.

The way Schiller views it, the "holy grail of compromises" would involve a deal in which Democrats show willingness to provide the president with the $5.7 billion he wants, in order to pay for a raft of border-security measures including patrol personnel, sniffer dogs, more technology and additional judges to process asylum claims.

What that money would not be appropriated for is whatever Trump might proclaim to be a wall.

See prototypes of Trump's border wall:

Trump's wall for Mexico takes shape

6 years ago
Duration 9:30
Featured VideoU.S. President Donald Trump's promise of a wall on the border with Mexico is taking shape. Testing is underway on eight prototypes built in San Diego, but the project still needs approval for $1.8 billion dollars in funding for construction. CBC News went down to take a look at what's been done so far

At the very least, Trump would be able to declare victory by boasting about winning the amount he sought to secure the border. Democrats would be able to declare victory by saying they denied Trump his wall. Last month, before the shutdown, Democrats offered $1.3 billion for border fencing, but no money for a border wall.

It comes down to semantics, and it's not clear the president would ever be willing to concede he didn't accomplish his key campaign promise. Trump has already moved off calling his barrier a concrete wall and says he would now agree to a barrier of see-through steel slats.

"Which is a huge concession, in my opinion," said Kentucky Republican strategist Scott Jennings.

Shutdowns splash down on everybody. Nobody wants that. Nobody wins.— Republican strategist Scott Jennings

Now that a conference committee of known dealmakers in Congress is about to sit down, Jennings hopes they'll seize an opportunity to create a comprehensive spending package on border security "that solves all our problems in one."

"We need barriers, most people agree on that. We need to protect the Dreamers, most people would agree on that," he said. "Divided government in our nation's history has been an opportunity for big deals."

The person Jennings believes can sell the Republican grassroots on a major immigration deal is the president. If this is Trump's moment to seize on a big compromise, he might not be there just yet. The White House said Sunday Trump is prepared to shutter the government again unless a new deal comes across his desk that explicitly includes money for his wall.

It will be up to Pelosi and congressional leaders to decide whether they're willing to accept giving Trump this win, but it's in no party's interest to go back into shutdown mode.

"Shutdowns splash down on everybody," Jennings said. "Nobody wants that. Nobody wins."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong