Updated at 5:45 p.m. ET
A formal committee of congressional negotiators held its first, and maybe only, public meeting on Wednesday to kick off talks to reach a border security deal that President Trump will support.
Leaders from both sides of the aisle sounded open to compromise. Democrats and Republicans on the House-Senate panel stressed they were not far apart on a plan to give the Department of Homeland Security additional resources to boost personnel, technology and other efforts to secure the Southwest border. But any talk of broader immigration reforms that Democrats would like in exchange for the president's demands for $5.7 billion for a border wall were set aside to drill down on a narrow spending deal.
In opening remarks, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., signaled a willingness to back more than the $1.6 billion previously appropriated for border security. And Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said pieces of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border could be "strategically placed" and don't necessarily have to be from "coast to coast" but simply "strategically placed where traffic is highest."
Appropriators are generally the most seasoned and bipartisan negotiators in Congress, and they could reach a border deal on their own more easily if not for the uncertainty of the president and his insistence on funds for a border wall.
"I know that the American people are counting on us to come to a reasonable and responsible solution. We are appropriators, and consistent with the proud tradition of our committees, I am confident that we will be able to reach a compromise," Lowey said.
"As long as we remain polarized, we will never resolve our differences on this critical issue that we owe to the American people," Shelby said.
Wednesday's meeting was open to the public, but future talks are expected to go on in private. The conference committee has a Feb. 15 deadline to get a bill to the president or agree to another stopgap funding bill to keep the government open. Otherwise, another partial government shutdown looms.
The conference committee is made up of lawmakers who sit on the House and Senate appropriations committees and are charged with writing the annual 12 spending bills that fund the U.S. government. Seven of the 12 bills remain unresolved, although the partial government shutdown centered on just one: the DHS funding bill.
Other top members of the committee talked about expanded funding for additional border agents and more technology such as drones — possible areas of agreement — though many still stuck somewhat to party talking points.
Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee's Homeland Security Subcommittee, suggested adding more customs agents at ports of entry, noting that these are where most smuggled drugs and other contraband come through, and she stressed more money is needed for combating the humanitarian crisis at the border caused by family separations and detention centers, where two children have died.
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the subcommittee, said he still believes a "physical barrier is needed," though that's not all. "I do think we need a wall, a physical barrier, where the barrier works, but that's only one part of it," Fleischmann said. "We need all of the above."
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a Senate appropriator, underscored that for these talks to work, both sides must give: "Doing our job, by definition, means nobody gets everything they want."
The panel was born out of the deal reached last week to end the longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history. Trump relented on his demand for wall funding to reopen the government, but he refuses to take another shutdown threat off the table.
Speaking to reporters before the meeting began, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who sits on the conference committee, said the president must also be on board and criticized Trump for the looming possibility of another shutdown if talks don't succeed.
"It would be helpful if the president was on board to reach a successful conclusion on this debate," Durbin said. "The president threatens to give us another shutdown if we don't cave to him. That's no way to sit down at the table and have a rational conclusion."
The president weighed in Wednesday morning on Twitter, telling lawmakers they are "Wasting their time!" if "Wall or Physical Barrier" funding is not included in the deal. In his remarks last Friday as the government shutdown finally ended, Trump did signal some flexibility, saying that "we do not need 2,000 miles of concrete wall from sea to shiny sea." But he has continued to push for his idea of a wall, and it's unclear how little wall or fencing he would accept. Trump told the Wall Street Journal on Sunday that he thought the odds were "less than 50-50" of the congressional appropriators reaching a compromise.
If the committee of Republicans and Democrats now meeting on Border Security is not discussing or contemplating a Wall or Physical Barrier, they are Wasting their time!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 30, 2019
Top House Democrats have shown some willingness to negotiate. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., told reporters on Tuesday that Democrats could support fencing in certain areas if it is "evidence based" and recommended by border experts.
Congressional Republicans are eager to reach a deal that can appease the president and head off the possibility that he tries to invoke emergency powers to end-run around Congress to build a wall. "I'm for whatever works, which means avoiding a shutdown and avoiding the president feeling he should declare a national emergency," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters on Tuesday. "Exactly how to do that, as you all know, has been quite challenging."
Negotiators initially wrestled with the scope of the talks, with lawmakers divided on whether they should include broader immigration issues — such as extending protections to people in the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — or stick strictly to funding questions.
But after the first round of negotiations on Wednesday, both sides seemed on the same page — focusing on the specifics of the kinds of programs they should fund and at what levels.
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.