Hill negotiators hear what they want on border

Bipartisan House and Senate negotiators emerged from a key closed-door briefing with Customs and Border Protection officials Wednesday agreeing they were told that a comprehensive response is the best way to secure the border, one that marries new technologies to additional personnel and new barriers.

But the lawmakers said they disagree about exactly how to balance that approach and still reach an agreement that will be acceptable to President Donald Trump, who has demanded $5.7 billion for a wall with Mexico.

With a February 15 deadline before another partial government shutdown would be triggered, they vowed to get down to work with new urgency to resolve their differences.

“Where does this lead us?” said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Senate Republican in the talks, after the much-anticipated briefing. “We hope it’s going to lead to serious substantive talks and a solution. We’ll know in the next few days. We know the clock is ticking away.”

Also Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she thought that if the White House stayed clear of the negotiations, a deal could be reached by this Friday, which would give the House and Senate time to move a bill through each floor.

“Left to their own devices, I think they can come to an agreement on time by Friday,” the California Democrat said, adding that she would likely support a bipartisan agreement reached by the committee.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had expressed similar sentiments Tuesday, meaning the leaders of each chamber are prepared to put a deal on the floor for a vote, regardless of whether Trump says he supports it.

The border briefing was conducted by unnamed career officials, not Trump administration appointees, at the agency, an effort to turn down the political and emotional rhetoric of the debate so negotiators could more soberly assess the needs on the border and reach a deal.

Shelby had promised to announce who briefed the committee but then declined to.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the no. 2 Democrat in the chamber, praised the briefers as “conscientious public servants” and reported that they agreed with Democrats that new technologies — like sensors and drones — were a higher priority than new barriers, which Trump and many Republicans want.

“Career professionals put technology as their highest priority. And let me add, in fairness to them, they don’t rule out barriers. They don’t rule out fences. But that isn’t their first priority,” Durbin told reporters as he departed the briefing, which was held in a secure room in the Capitol Visitor Center.

Durbin also said that he sensed the officials were reluctant to “break with the President” in terms of his desire for a wall and $5.7 billion.

But North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven said he walked out convinced the career officials believe a barrier is key.

“Yes, you need technology. Yes, you need personnel. But you also have to have a border barrier,” Hoeven said.

Shelby said the officials said that there has to be a blend of the approaches to be successful.

“Technology without barriers is wasting our time. Barriers without technology is wasting our time,” Shelby quoted the officials as saying.

Durbin also said the officials “acknowledged” that 90% of illegal drugs come through points of entry, not across the vast expanse of the border where there are no barriers. Democrats have used that figure to argue for more resources at those points of entry instead of building a wall.

West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who represents a state hard hit by the opioid epidemic, disputed that point and said the officials reported that large quantities of drugs are now coming into the US where there are no barriers because detection at points of entry has become so sophisticated.

“Maybe the cartels and others are sensing that because these are uncontrolled areas, they are much more vulnerable, and that’s troubling to me, coming from the state that I represent,” she said.

Shelby also said the officials reported that terrorists “from all over the world” were coming across the US-Mexico border.

“They said some are coming from the Middle East. Some are coming from Turkey. And coming across the soft barriers,” he said.

He didn’t know how many but said it was not “thousands, but terrorists don’t operate in thousands. They operate in small groups, sometimes alone.”

He didn’t provide other details of what was said about the terrorists but said it was another argument for additional barriers on the border.