U.S. lawmakers working to avert another partial government shutdown emerged from a closed-door meeting Wednesday asserting that an agreement on border security could be reached in the coming days, but indicated that partisan differences remained on specific elements of a potential deal.
The bipartisan joint committee, tasked with crafting a plan to boost U.S. border security before federal funding expires Feb. 15, conferred privately with career officials of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The briefing occurred one day after President Donald Trump restated his funding demand for physical barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"The clock is ticking away," Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, told reporters. "We're hopeful. The tone is good between the various conferees. We're dealing in substance now."
"All of us feel pressure to get it [a deal] done, and I believe we should," said the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois.
"I continue to be very optimistic," Tennessee Republican Rep. Chuck Fleischmann said. "We have a lot of good minds in that room. We have a lot of good hearts in that room."
At the same time, U.S. lawmakers acknowledged that disagreements have yet to be resolved.
Durbin said Wednesday's meeting reinforced his belief that extending walls and fencing on America's southern border would be ineffective and wasteful. He said border officials confirmed that the vast majority of illegal narcotics entering the United States pass through legal points of entry, not over open border territory.
"It turns out that fewer than one out of five trucks are actually inspected as they come across that border, and only 1.5 percent of cars are inspected," Durbin said, adding that the funding priority should be to provide Customs and Border Protection agents with more technology and manpower at points of entry.
North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven had a different take on the briefing.
"One size does not fit all," he said. "It's a three-legged stool. Yes, you need technology. Yes, you need personnel. But you also have to have a border barrier."
In his State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday, Trump said walls are needed "to secure vast areas between our ports of entry," adding, "Where walls go up, illegal crossings go down."
For now, conference committee members aren't predicting whether a border security agreement will contain even a portion of the $5.7 billion in wall funding Trump has sought, spawning doubts as to whether the president would support any bill a politically divided Congress might pass.
"Obviously, it would be great if the president decided to sign the bill," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Tuesday. "I think the conferees ought to reach an agreement. And then we'll hope that the president finds it worth signing."
A 35-day partial government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history, ended in late January when Congress passed a stopgap bill to reopen federal agencies for three weeks.
The shutdown began last December, when, at Trump's behest, the then-Republican-led House refused to consider a Senate funding bill that omitted wall funding — and Senate Democrats rejected a House-passed bill that contained wall funding.
The three-week funding period was designed to give Congress time to forge a bipartisan border security package and fully fund federal operations for the remainder of the fiscal year.
"We're on the right track," Texas Rep. Kay Granger, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, told reporters. "I think if we have enough time, we can get it done."