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House Democrats offering less money for a wall this year than in 2018 omnibus

The outline, not yet released in legislative form, eliminates $1.34 billion for fencing that party leaders were ready to accept just weeks ago

From left, House Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, House Appropriations chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., prepare to start the Homeland Security Appropriations Conference Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
From left, House Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, House Appropriations chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., prepare to start the Homeland Security Appropriations Conference Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats on Thursday unveiled a counterproposal on border security that moves them further away from President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in wall money than they were just weeks ago.

The six-page outline, which has not yet been released in legislative form, would eliminate the $1.34 billion for fencing along the southwest border that party leaders were ready to accept just weeks ago, and which was included in the fiscal 2018 omnibus appropriations law enacted last March.

What’s more, it would restrict any remaining unobligated funds from being used to build “physical barriers” in certain areas near wildlife refuges and historical parks. A funding prohibition in the fiscal 2018 law only barred construction in the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, while the new Democratic proposal would prevent barrier building with existing funds in four additional sensitive areas.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., previewed her caucus’ tactics Thursday morning, telling reporters: “There’s not going to be any wall money in the legislation.” Trump later told reporters that the 17-member conference committee meeting to hash out a fiscal 2019 Department of Homeland Security funding compromise was “not going to work” and that he won’t “waste my time reading what they have” if Democrats won’t accept any wall money.

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Pelosi did not rule out additional funding for “enhanced fencing” or Normandy fencing, which has already been built along the border. “Is there a place where enhanced fencing, Normandy fencing, would work? Let them have that discussion,” she said of the conferees. Normandy fencing consists of a series of crossed posts, similar to those used during World War II.

Conferees are operating under a Feb. 15 deadline to get a bill to Trump’s desk that he can sign, or another partial government shutdown would begin. That’s when the latest stopgap expires. Pelosi said that effectively means that an agreement would need to be in hand by Feb. 8 to allow time to draft bill text and move it through both chambers.

Under the Democrats’ proposal, Customs and Border Protection would receive $14.3 billion, a 2 percent increase over fiscal 2018 and slightly more than the Senate Appropriations Committee approved last June on a 26-5 vote. That’s about $5.6 billion less than Trump wants in his revised request, however, which Senate Republicans included in their bill that didn’t get past a filibuster last week in that chamber. Most of that would go toward construction of 234 miles of steel barriers along the border.

Within CBP accounts, House Democrats would zero out the $1.6 billion to build 65 miles of new fencing in the Rio Grande Valley that 10 of the Senate panel’s 15 Democrats last year voted for. There’s also no money to support hiring new Border Patrol agents; last year Senate appropriators proposed enough to hire 375 more agents, which Trump now wants to double. As House Democrats explain in their outline: “a staffing model to justify any increase in Border Patrol agents is long overdue.”

House Democrats would redirect the saved money to items such as $502 million for humanitarian needs at the border, $400 million for border security technology, and $156.7 million for new aircraft, ships and sensors.

Detention Beds

The proposal would also provide a roughly 5 percent increase for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to $7.44 billion. That’s $234 million more than the bipartisan Senate bill from last year, but nearly $1.1 billion less than Trump wants.

A big reason appears to be ICE detention facilities; the House Democrats would provide enough to support an average daily population of 35,520 for the rest of the fiscal year, well below the 52,000-bed capacity Trump wants. The Democrats’ outline notes an “intention that family detention be phased-out by the end of” fiscal 2019. Additionally, the proposal would stipulate that no more than 16,500 of the detainee population can be “associated with interior enforcement,” or the approximate average daily population at the end of the Obama administration.

At the same time, Democrats would increase funding for alternatives to detention, such as electronic monitoring and GPS devices.

The House Democrats’ version doesn’t appear to shortchange any other key agencies funded in the DHS bill: The Transportation Security Administration would receive $4.89 billion, a very small $35 million reduction from the previous year but a slight $47 million increase from the Senate committee-reported version. It’s also $844 million more than Trump requested.

The Coast Guard would receive $12 billion, with the help of $165 million in cap-exempt Overseas Contingency Operations funds. That’s a slight $101 million cut from last year but $568 million over the request, with money for the first new heavy polar icebreaker in four decades included. And the Secret Service would receive $2.2 billion, a $68 million increase above Trump’s request.

Overall, the House Democrats’ measure would provide about $49.1 billion in discretionary funds, counting the Coast Guard add-on, which is a $1.3 billion or 2.7 percent increase above fiscal 2018. Those figures do not include additional money the Federal Emergency Management Agency gets for its Disaster Relief Fund on top of the annual spending caps.

The comparable figure in the Senate Republicans’ proposal, backed by Trump, is $55.1 billion, with $5.56 billion of that designated as an emergency for border security to get around spending caps.

Conferees do not yet have another time to meet publicly, but appropriations conference committees typically negotiate in private. House Democrats’ decision to release details of their proposal Thursday was a bit unusual, according to Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., who said his party probably wouldn’t make its response public.

“We have a lot of thoughts, but we want to try to work them within the committee if we can,” Shelby said.

Shelby told reporters that both sides plan to continue talking through the weekend.

David Lerman and John T. Bennett contributed to this report.

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