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Inside Congress' futile talks to reach an immigration deal

“We got stuck on the barrier situation, but we still overall agree there’s so much work that needs to be done in addition to a barrier.”

by Matt Laslo
Feb 1 2019, 4:13pm

President Trump called their efforts a “waste of time” Thursday, but the 17 members of Congress tasked with crafting a deal to avert another government shutdown is trying to stay optimistic.

“Quite honestly, we’re dealmakers. We do this every year,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), the only member of the committee who represents a southern border district, told VICE News at the Capitol earlier this week. “We’ll sit down and see what we can make work.”

But what they don’t know is whether they can come up with a deal acceptable to the two people not at the table: Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And that gets harder with every passing day.

On Thursday, Trump and Pelosi drew their bright red lines. "There's not going to be any wall money in the legislation," Pelosi said Wednesday. If she doesn’t approve a wall, the rest of it’s just a "waste of money and time and energy,” Trump told the New York Times.

So the question hovering in the back of all these lawmaker’s minds is: What can we possibly produce that Trump or Pelosi will sign off on?

“The president and the speaker, by proxy, are probably at some point, at some level, going to be at the table,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the Senate majority whip, told VICE News just off the Senate floor.

For now, the committee members are negotiating in secret, and they remain optimistic that away from the television cameras, they can strike a deal, but whether they can sell that proposal to Trump and Pelosi — and their respective caucuses who will ultimately have to pass the funding measure — remains the trillion-dollar question on everyone’s minds in Washington.

“I do think there is broad support for strong security of our border, and it’s a lot of semantics as to what do you call it”

“That’s why I say you start with what we agree on, and I think – Democrats, Republicans, House and Senate – we all agree that our border needs to be more secure,” Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), a committee member and the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, told VICE News in a hallway underneath the Capitol. “We got stuck on the barrier situation, but we still overall agree there’s so much work that needs to be done in addition to a barrier.”

Some lawmakers have floated the idea of broadening the scope of the committee beyond merely funding the Department of Homeland Security, like including a debt-limit increase or even including a permanent fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). The thinking is that the wall dispute would shrink in importance if larger issues are thrown into the mix.

“Everybody’s throwing things to see what will stick on the wall,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat and a member of the conference committee, told VICE News at the Capitol.

But many of the committee members want to stay laser-focused on the immediate funding battle.

“Right now my responsibility is to deal with Homeland Security [funding], and I have not considered broadening the challenge,” House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who is also chairing this conference committee, told VICE News after leaving a TV interview just off the House floor.

The committee has just weeks to work out a deal that has evaded their respective party leaders for years. But even though the odds seem stacked against them, they’re appropriators and none of the conference committee members are intimidated by the task before them.

That’s because the lawmakers who make up the nation’s Appropriations Committees — those lawmakers charged with spending tax dollars — are different than other politicians in this hyper-partisan Washington era.

“There’s a certain dynamic involved, as an appropriator, that is generally less partisan — generally, less partisan than we see,” Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), who is on the conference committee, told VICE News. “Having said that, there are bona fide differences, but I think the folks in the room are great people and we have cordial relations.”

Cuellar contends working through the minutia of doling out millions, billions and even trillions of dollars in federal spending is manageable. Sure, it’s hard, but it’s literally their jobs. That’s why he’s also dismissing calls to broaden the scope of the committee.

“I do think there is broad support for strong security of our border, and it’s a lot of semantics as to what do you call it.”

“If you’re talking about full immigration reform, yes, that’s a different thing,” Cuellar said. “Right now, I’m just looking at appropriations.”

This week some Democratic leaders seemed to open the door a crack to include some money for barrier building as long as it was “evidence-based,” but Pelosi batted away that notion on Thursday.

That’s why some members say the exchanges between Trump and Pelosi over the wall are unhelpful. Some are just trying to avoid “the wall” altogether.

“I do think there's broad support for strong security of our border, and it’s a lot of semantics as to what do you call it,” Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), another member of this special panel, told VICE News after leaving a press conference with the House GOP leadership team.

Whatever this special committee comes out with, it’s sure to piss off many in the progressive and tea party wings of both parties that now dominate Washington. But that's fine, these dealmakers say.

“I’ve seen this with all conference committee reports: You’re taking two different positions and you’re meshing them together. And whenever that happens, you’re not going to have unanimous support from both bodies or both parties,” Graves said. “So it’s about finding that balance that ultimately can get the signature of the president, too.”

Cover: In this Dec. 11, 2018, photo, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence meet with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, (D-N.Y.), and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, (D-Calif.), in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)