Congress

McConnell wants border security conference to produce a bill, even if Trump signature is unclear

Senate majority leader is praying for the conferees to succeed

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wants a border security conference to reach a result. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants the House and Senate negotiators working on a border security spending agreement to reach a deal — even if there aren’t assurances that President Donald Trump will sign it.

The Kentucky Republican made those comments hours ahead of Trump’s State of the Union, which was rescheduled to Tuesday thanks to the most recent partial government shutdown.

“Obviously, it would be great if the president decided to sign the bill. I think we don’t yet know what his view is on this, but I think the conferees ought to reach an agreement,” McConnell said. “And then we’ll hope that the president finds it worth signing.”

That is a shift from McConnell’s position during the 35-day government shutdown, when he insisted he would not bring anything to the Senate floor that he did not know the president would support and sign.

After McConnell pushed through a shutdown-averting continuing resolution in December that Trump had initially signaled he would sign and then backed off supporting, McConnell said he was not interested in any show votes. The conference committee, and its Feb. 15 deadline to strike a deal, has changed his calculus. 

Also watch: As lawmakers begin to hash out border security, how do conference committees work?

McConnell also said he was praying for the conferees. Of course, another shutdown would all but certainly be on the agenda for the middle of February if Trump declined to sign such an agreement.

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said he felt optimistic conferees can reach agreement before the end of the week.

“Yes, I do. But we’ll see. Time will tell on that,” he said.

Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said he expects the conference committee to reach an agreement that is acceptable to all sides, but declined to say if that can happen by the Feb. 15 deadline.

“I’m not going to put a date on it. We have certain constraints; mechanical ones and drafting and getting up and voting. But can it be done? I believe it can,” he said. “I would be happy to stay here and work all weekend if that would get it done.”

Conferees from the Appropriations Committees are scheduled to huddle behind closed doors Wednesday to meet in one of the Senate’s secure compartmentalized information facilities to hear from experts on the border security situation.

North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican member of the conference, was pushing last week for such a meeting to try to diffuse some of the partisanship that’s dominated the debate over funding for Trump’s desired wall at the border with Mexico.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby is among the lawmakers who agrees with this approach.

“We hope there is a new dynamic that would come out of a candid discussion by the experts that are challenged by the border every day, that try to protect this country,” the Alabama Republican said, noting that the unnamed group of Customs and Border Protection agents expected on Wednesday are “not political types like me or like the speaker or the president or anybody else.”

The discussion could help negotiators on the fiscal 2019 Homeland Security spending bill find a way to advance legislation that can get the support of Democrats, Republicans and the president, Shelby said.

Senior Republican members of the Appropriations Committee such as McConnell and Shelby are making no secret about the need to get to a result.

West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee and a member of the conference committee, indicated Tuesday that she hopes the 17 lawmakers can complete negotiations without outside interference.

“I think it’s better if the committee gets to work its will, and I think that means, ‘Let us see how far we can go, and then get everybody else to weigh in,’” she said.

“We’re moving in the right direction. Nobody’s left the table. That’s a good thing.” 

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