Democrats ready to deal on border barrier — just not a ‘wall’

Trump has ‘no problem’ to government shutdown over border wall

President Donald Trump reaffirmed his willingness to shutdown the government over funding for the wall along the U.S. - Mexico border that he promised during his campaign.
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President Donald Trump reaffirmed his willingness to shutdown the government over funding for the wall along the U.S. - Mexico border that he promised during his campaign.

Jim Clyburn wants to call his border security plan a wall, even though it’s really not.

Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat, is proposing what he calls a “smart wall,” a border security strategy that uses technology, not concrete.

The South Carolina congressman explained his “wall” would involve drones, scanners, and sensors “to create a technological barrier too high to climb over, too wide to go around, and too deep to burrow under.”

His terminology matters because Democrats have signaled they’re willing to make a deal on border security that, at least rhetorically, would include some sort of barrier.

They just need to label their plan carefully, and finding the right words and tone is going to be a major theme as congressional negotiators continue to seek a deal next week.

Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and a member of the committee trying to negotiate a breakthrough, chuckled when discussing Clyburn’s idea. If a deal is reached, he said, people can call it whatever they want.

“If a wall is part of it, if a fence is part of it, that’s what some people will call it. If it’s smart some other people will call it that,” he said.

The official Democratic position on the $5.7 billion that President Donald Trump wants for a U.S.-Mexico border wall: “If you’re asking if there’s any money for, like, the border wall, no. There is not,” said Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a Democrat from California and chair of the House Appropriations Committee’s homeland security subcommittee.


“We’re going to be discussing with Democrats, Republicans, the experts what is most effective. And at this point, I’m certainly not going to give an answer to that question,” said House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat.

Lowey is one of 17 negotiators, including nine Democrats and eight Republicans, who are trying to find a way to reconcile Trump’s demands for a physical wall with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s insistence there will be no such thing. The group met Wednesday and offered opening positions.

In November, a video team from Brookings Productions visited the U.S.-Mexico border region and captured these aerial images of where President Trump has proposed to build his border wall.

Congressional staffs are now meeting to prepare different proposals for further discussion. The committee is aiming to craft compromise legislation that can pass Congress and be signed by Trump in time to avoid a partial shutdown after Feb. 15. That’s when current funding runs out for nine Cabinet departments, including homeland security, as well as several smaller agencies.

Committee members are reluctant to comment on specific proposals. “I’ll be happy to discuss anything raised by the conferees in the conference,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, Democrat from Vermont. But with fellow negotiators, he said, not reporters.

While Democrats will not specify what they might propose next, one big clue came from Clyburn, a close Pelosi ally. Semantics matter, which is why he’s calling enhanced security a “smart wall.”

Another clue as to what’s to come from Democrats: There’s a recent history of Democrats supporting physical barriers, notably fences, as long as they are part of a comprehensive border security package.

“Democrats have voted for all sorts of funding for barriers,” said Jeremy Robbins, executive director of New American Economy, an immigration research and advocacy group.

Democrats have given strong support to the two most prominent immigration reform initiatives of recent years. In 2006, Congress easily passed the Secure Fence Act, which authorized construction of hundreds of miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. But it was a popular one. The bill passed easily in both chambers.

In the House, 64 Democrats voted yes and 131 voted no. In the Senate, 26 Democrats voted yes and 17 voted no. Among those voting yes: current Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and then-Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Sen. Bernie Sanders, then a House member, voted no.

While the fencing was the highlight, the bill authorized several other strategies to stem illegal crossings. Among them: More checkpoints, lighting and vehicle barriers and increased use of cameras, satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Most of the approximately 700 miles of fencing was built, but a 2017 Government Accountability Office report found it often damaged and breached. Trump criticized the fencing, saying it was only a “little wall.”

Seven years later, Congress tried to come up with a more sweeping approach to curbing illegal immigration. The Senate’s “Gang of Eight,” four Democrats and four Republicans, wrote a massive overhaul of the immigration system, including a path to citizenship for certain undocumented aliens.

Included in the bill was $46 billion for additional border security measures. It included $8 billion for fencing. Most of the package was to go to hiring and deploying 19,000 additional border patrol agents over the next 10 years.

The Senate passed the bill with 68 votes, including Schumer’s, but it died in the House. All four key Democrats – Schumer, Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Bob Menendez of New Jersey – are still in the Senate. Durbin is on the current negotiating committee.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, voted for both the 2006 and 2013 bills. She’s again looking for a broad approach. Technology has evolved, new strategies have been devised and the nature of threats to U.S. security keeps changing, and she is open to legislation that considers the ever-evolving security dangers.

“Overwhelmingly drugs are coming in through ports of entry,” she said. “It’s airports, it’s bridges, it’s other ports of entry and so you will see strong support for those things that actually, substantively work. Not just a campaign slogan.”

The bottom line today: There’s a strong constituency among Democrats for border barriers. Just don’t call it a concrete wall.

“Fencing is different, and a wall should not be confused with border security,” said Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pennsylvania, told CNN this week. “No serious expert would recommend a wall.”

Trump told reporters on Jan. 4 that he could officially declare a national emergency to build a border wall but wants to try to negotiate a border wall with Congress.

David Lightman is McClatchy’s chief congressional correspondent. He’s been writing, editing and teaching for 47 years, with stops in Hagerstown, Riverside, Calif., Annapolis, Baltimore and since 1981, Washington.