Capitol Hill negotiators are toiling away on a deal Republicans and Democrats can support to fund border security — without the input of President Donald Trump.
While the government could once again shut down if Trump rejects their deal, congressional negotiators are betting they will get Trump’s signature on a border compromise even if they don’t secure his blessing beforehand.
“The goal here is to actually wind up with a bill the president will sign. That doesn’t mean that you have to have the president’s commitment before you put it on his desk,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, a day before Trump makes his State of the Union address Tuesday.
Blunt, the No. 4 Republican in the Senate, is one of 17 lawmakers tasked with preventing another government shutdown by crafting a border security package that can pass the Democratic-controlled House and still obtain Trump’s signature before temporary funding runs out on Feb. 15.
According to lawmakers and staff involved in the negotiations, ideas that are gaining consensus are building up security at ports of entry where the majority of drugs come into the country — as opposed to focusing on barriers in the spaces in between.
Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar’s proposal, for example, calls for $675 million for “non-intrusive inspection technology” at land ports of entry — something Texas Republicans also like — but that’s $631 million above the White House’s request for that type of security.
Trump wants $5.7 billion for a border wall.
Cuellar, part of the close-knit group of negotiators, hosted three Republicans on the committee in his south Texas congressional district Monday to lobby them against Trump’s ideas.
“They keep talking about the wall, the wall, the wall, which we don’t want,” Cuellar said of the gathering with Reps. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tennessee, Kay Granger, R-Texas, and Steven Palazzo, R-Mississippi.
Negotiators are now discussing the construction of “enhanced fencing,” an idea more appealing to Democrats than the proposed wall, according to Blunt, who has longstanding friendships across the aisle that could prove key to crafting a deal.
“The goal of this conference should be to do our best to get a bill that we think is something the president will sign when he looks at everything in it, but not to let him become one of the negotiators,” Blunt said.
However, Blunt said that there are conversations happening with Vice President Mike Pence and others in the White House.
Trump has repeatedly panned the negotiations on Twitter as a waste of time and floated the possibility of declaring a national emergency if lawmakers don’t send him a bill to fund construction of a wall along the southern border, his signature promise during the 2016 campaign.
But lawmakers have some precedent in sending a deal forward that doesn’t include specific items requested by the president, including last year’s farm bill, which omitted nearly all of the policy changes Trump had called for on food stamps and other programs.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, repeatedly refused to consider legislation during the shutdown without a promise from Trump to sign it, but said on Monday that “we’ll have to wait to see how all of this unfolds” when asked if the Senate could vote on legislation without Trump’s pre-approval.
Previous attempts to obtain Trump’s approval before taking votes have backfired because of Trump’s penchant for changing his mind, said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center.
“At this point in time, negotiating with a president who so quickly can change his is mind is not helpful to their process,” Cardinal Brown said. “There’s no point to bring him in. They just need to figure out what they can agree on.”
Lawmakers could pass a bill that lacks some of the things Trump wants and essentially dare him not to sign it. Vetoing the bill risks rebuke from lawmakers in Trump’s own party who don’t want another shutdown. Trump has never exercised his veto power as president.
A GOP aide who requested anonymity to speak candidly told McClatchy “the desire to override a veto could gain steam,” if the choice is “that or another shutdown.”
Trump has also floated that he may declare a national emergency if lawmakers fail to send him a bill that funds construction of a border wall, a move that congressional leaders want to avoid. A declaration would likely face a legal challenge.
The president has previously had to accept legislation that he’s publicly criticized.
In December, he ended up signing a version of the farm bill that did not include his policy priorities after attacking it on Twitter for weeks.
“It’s always nice to know here he is, but he also knows when you get 87 votes in the Senate… it might be a good idea to sign a farm bill,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, when asked about how Trump’s tweets factor into the negotiating process.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, pointed to bipartisan deals on budgets and sanctions against Russia as examples of why Trump should avoid a major role in the negotiations.
“When the president stays out of the negotiations we almost always succeed. When he mixes in it’s a formula for failure so I asked President Trump to let Congress deal with it on its own,” Schumer said last week.