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Congress nears border security deal, but Trump’s support unclear

Whether President Donald Trump, pictured here with Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, would sign a border security agreement is unclear. | Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images

Congressional negotiators are nearing a deal on border security to avoid a government shutdown — if the president will accept it.

Democrats and Republicans have been trading offers all week; any deal is likely to provide funding for technology and fencing on the southern border, according to senators and aides. Republicans were preparing a counteroffer to the latest Democratic proposal on Wednesday night, according to one senator familiar with negotiations, though Democrats said they were still waiting for it on Thursday afternoon.

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Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) went to the White House on Thursday to brief President Donald Trump on the negotiations and efforts to steer clear of a shutdown at the end of next week. He seemed buoyed after the sit-down with Vice President Mike Pence and Trump, who told Shelby it was time for negotiators to “wrap it up, get a legislative solution.”

“This is the most positive I’ve been or I’ve seen in the talks since, oh gosh, maybe ever … since last fall,” Shelby said. “If we can work within some of the parameters that we talked about today, that we’ll keep to ourselves right now, I think he would sign it.”

Shelby added that by Monday, “We hope we’ve got a deal. If we haven’t got a deal we probably won’t get a deal.”

Democrats on the conference committee seemed split on how close a deal was at hand. Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) said the two parties are “far apart” and the panel needs a “breakthrough,” but Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) was riding high as most senators headed home for the weekend.

“I’m in with Shelby man. I think it’s entirely possible we can have a deal in a timely manner which would be tomorrow but certainly by the weekend,” Tester said.

Rep. Lucille Roybal Allard (D-Calif.) said it was “unrealistic” not to give Trump a boost in funding for a physical barrier, but couldn’t assess the state of play until she has something more concrete in front of her: “I’m waiting for the counter.”

And it will take a more firm and public commitment from Trump to make most on Capitol Hill feel confident about the state of play. The president is certain to receive less than the $ 5.7 billion he demanded for a border wall during the recent 35-day partial government shutdown.

But he’s likely to be presented with few other options: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes a short-term funding bill to extend talks and there’s no desire for the president to declare a national emergency to secure funding on his own among GOP leaders.

“Everybody is feeling increasingly upbeat about the possibility of getting a deal. The question is whether it’s something the president can sign,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the GOP whip, said in an interview Thursday. “I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that.”

Negotiators hope a deal can be sealed by Sunday night, so that the House can take it up early next week ahead of the Feb. 15 deadline. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated to negotiators she will observe a new three-day review rule in the Democratic House, presenting a fairly hard deadline over the next few days.

Senate Democratic members of the bipartisan, bicameral conference committee met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer at noon Thursday. Later, Schumer told POLITICO negotiations are going “pretty good.”

Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), the No. 4 House Democrat, said in an interview Thursday that he is willing to look at whatever deal emerges — even if it includes some kinds of physical barriers.

“If it follows the framework we have laid out — not just as a Democratic caucus, but also that we have laid out as part of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus — it’s something I’m at least open to reviewing to see how we can move forward,” Lujan said. “As long as the president stays out of this, I‘m convinced that we’ll be able to find a deal. We’ll see what he does.”

Richard Shelby

The border portion seems to be the only real impediment to funding a quarter of the government through September. Democratic conferee Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said that negotiators have been working tirelessly and are “98, 99 percent” done but he was unsure if the president would sign it. Republicans said they did not expect to clinch a deal on Thursday but were close.

Pelosi again urged the White House to stay out of the negotiations and let Capitol Hill deal-makers do their best.

“I have asked the administration to be as noninterventionist as I am on that,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday morning. “Just let them do their work. And hopefully that will — we’ll get some good news in a short period of time.”

The California Democrat predicted to POLITICO on Wednesday that there wouldn’t be another shutdown, saying such an outcome would be “too hot to handle” for Republicans, who the public overwhelmingly blamed for the 35-day impasse.

Democratic leaders have been firm about reaching a deal before Friday, which would allow ample time to debate and pass the bill before the looming funding lapse. But some negotiators expect they’ll need more time and have said they could work through the weekend.

“Nothing has been decided and nothing has been finalized,” Roybal Allard said. “Am I concerned, being that the deadline is tomorrow? Yes.”

The agreement is expected to go beyond addressing the Department of Homeland Security‘s budget. Negotiators are also working on massive funding bills for departments like Transportation, Agriculture, and State.

Both parties are eyeing billions of dollars in disaster aid for communities in California ravaged by wildfires and states like Florida and Alabama, which were hit hard by last year’s hurricanes.

Democrats are also looking to include money for Puerto Rico’s cash-strapped Medicaid program, which GOP leaders have kept out of past funding deals.

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