Border Security Talks Begin On Capitol Hill With Signs of Narrow Bipartisan Deal House and Senate lawmakers formally kicked off negotiations over funding the Department of Homeland Security, facing a Feb. 15 deadline for a spending bill Trump will sign to avoid another shutdown.

Border Security Talks Begin On Capitol Hill With Signs of Narrow Bipartisan Deal

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Federal Government is once again open, but if lawmakers can't cut a deal that President Trump will sign, there could be another partial government shutdown in a little more than two weeks. In an effort to prevent that, a bipartisan group of 17 House and Senate negotiators kicked off formal talks today to come up with a funding agreement for the Department of Homeland Security. There is broad agreement in Congress on what it takes to secure the border, except for when it comes to President Trump's demand to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is tracking these negotiations and joins us now. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: President Trump tweeted this morning that these talks are a, quote, "waste of time" if they don't result in a wall." What did today's meeting reveal about how likely it is that this deal ends with the president getting to claim a victory on this?

DAVIS: I think the next two weeks are going to see a lot of verbal gymnastics on exactly what does it mean to have a barrier on the wall. One of the conferees today is Georgia Republican Congressman Tom Graves, and he kind of talked about this dynamic. And here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM GRAVES: I suspect we might have some discussions about terminology and words we use, but whether it's deterrence, whether it's obstructions, whether it's walls, whether it's barriers, I think we are here for a very narrow purpose and scope, and that is to provide the necessary resources to secure our homeland.

DAVIS: Democrats have put a first offer on the table. It includes a lot more money for things like customs offices, customs officers, technology, repairs at ports of entry and lots more for humanitarian aid. But they made a very specific point not to include any new money for physical barriers.

I will say Democrats have not drawn a red line here. They have given themselves some wiggle room. When they are pressed about could they support any kind of physical barrier, one of the leadership's - one of the members of leadership, Hakeem Jeffries, said this week that they could do so if there was evidence-based reasons for them.

SHAPIRO: How big is the scope of the deal that they're talking about? I mean, are things like protections for Obama-era DACA recipients on the table?

DAVIS: President Trump had put that on the table during the shutdown when they were trying to reopen government. Those have been taken off the table again. From the perspective here on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are saying don't expect a big immigration deal here. This is not going to be about DACA. It's not going to be anything else outside of these funding issues for the border.

It's worth reminding people that this fight is over a bill that is just the annual funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security. It's only for calendar year 2019. And Nita Lowey, who's the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said her goal today is just to pass those seven outstanding spending bills and include a little bit of more money for disaster relief. No big immigration deals are expected to come out of this.

SHAPIRO: Is that how President Trump, who would have to sign such a bill, sees it?

DAVIS: I mean, that's always the open question here. Will the president sign it? He's constantly moving the goalposts. There was a lot of jokes inside the room today that, left to their own devices, lawmakers would have cut a deal weeks ago. He is and will remain the wild card.

SHAPIRO: Just in the few seconds we have, there's talk of a bill that would prevent these shutdown dramatics from happening every six months or a year - any likelihood of that happening?

DAVIS: There is a growing number of proposals coming from lawmakers up here. Rob Portman is a senator from Ohio. He's got a proposal a lot of senators are jumping on. Essentially it says, if you've got up to a funding deadline and Congress hadn't passed a stopgap funding measure, one would kick in automatically. It's certainly a popular idea to end all shutdowns. But I will note that there's a lot of opposition from it from appropriators and from members of Congress who say it would give too much of the power away of the purse. So it's not expected to be included in this round of talks.

SHAPIRO: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Thank you.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

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