WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats on Thursday (Jan 31) hardened their positions over a wall being built on the border with Mexico, raising new doubts over their ability to reach a deal just as negotiations were getting underway.
At her weekly news conference, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi reiterated, "There's not going to be any wall money in the legislation" to fund border security for the rest of this year.
Instead, Pelosi said funding for more ports of entry or additional border security technology was open for negotiation. She added that the 17 House and Senate negotiators should decide the components of the nation's border security.
But the Democratic negotiators went a step further from Pelosi's prohibition on wall funds, unveiling a detailed opening position containing no money for any type of additional physical barriers on the border to control the flow of undocumented immigrants and illegal drugs.
Previously, Democrats have supported US$1.3 billion for new border fencing this year or improvements to existing fencing.
Asked by reporters about Pelosi's comment on wall funding, Trump, a Republican, said: "Without a wall, it doesn’t work."
Congress has a Feb. 15 deadline for coming up with a new plan for further securing the southwestern border.
The bipartisan conference committee of House and Senate lawmakers held a public session on Wednesday with the goal of producing a deal in about a week so it could be voted on by both chambers by the deadline.
TORRENT OF TWEETS
Democratic leaders have called on Trump to stand aside and let the negotiators do their work as a way of fostering success.
Ignoring that advice, Trump issued a series of tweets on Thursday predicting failure and sounding alarms.
"More troops being sent to the Southern Border to stop the attempted Invasion of Illegals, through large Caravans," Trump tweeted.
"Democrats are becoming the Party of late term abortion, high taxes, Open Borders and Crime!" another tweet declared.
At the same time, each side has left some potential openings for the congressional negotiators to exploit.
Evan Hollander, a House Appropriations Committee spokesman, said the Democratic plan detailed on Thursday was the party's "position entering conference negotiations" and "every proposal raised by conferees will be thoughtfully considered."
Pelosi was more specific at her news conference.
"Is there a place for enhanced fencing? Normandy fencing would work. Let them have that discussion," she said, referring to low-slung vehicle barriers.
For his part, Trump, speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, said, "you can have other things" securing the border, "but the other things only really work if you have a physical barrier."
Trump has demanded US$5.7 billion for this fiscal year alone to start construction on a border wall that he envisioned during his 2016 campaign as being 2,000 miles (3,200 km) long and made of concrete.
Since then, he has said it would not run the full length of the border, could be made of other materials such as steel slats - and that the wall could be called "peaches" if that was a way to get around the semantics of a "wall."
And he has maintained that large sections had already been built.
But on Thursday, Trump reversed himself.
"Lets just call them WALLS from now on and stop playing political games!" he tweeted. "A WALL is a WALL!"
Without a deal by Feb 15, a partial government shutdown could resume, following a record 35-day interruption in government services that began on Dec 22 and left 800,000 federal workers without paychecks.
Included in the Democrats' plan, detailed in a summary provided to reporters, was US$98 million above last year for US Customs and Border Protection to hire 1,000 more customs agents.
There also was US$400 million for buying and deploying security technology, which would be US$353 million above Trump's request.
Furthermore, Democrats called for new constraints on the ability of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to place in deportation proceedings the sponsors of undocumented immigrant minors who are in the United States without their parents.
If Congress fails to craft a deal or writes one that Trump does not like, the president has said he would consider declaring a national emergency in order to divert existing funds to build a wall, which would almost certainly trigger a court challenge. By law, Congress appropriates the money for federal projects.
Noting that more than 600 miles (960 km) of pedestrian and vehicle barriers already have been built on the U.S.-Mexico border over the past several years, Pelosi said, "If the president wants to call that a wall, he can call it a wall."