Washington Parses Trump’s Wall Semantics in Search for Compromise

Anna Edgerton
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Washington Parses Trump’s Wall Semantics in Search for Compromise

(Bloomberg) -- A compromise between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats to end a partial government shutdown could hinge on the definition of “wall” -- what kind of physical barrier or other border security measures are acceptable to both sides.

Trump’s demand for a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico actually refers to “steel slats” as well as the technology that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers have said they need to intercept the illegal flow of goods and people, according to Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House adviser.

“It is a silly semantic argument because people who just want to say ‘wall, wall, wall’ want that to be a four-letter word,” Conway said on “Fox News Sunday,” one of two appearances on a day parts of the federal government are shut for a ninth day.

While Trump has in recent weeks expanded his definition of a wall to include barriers not made of concrete, he continues to insist on a physical structure on the border with Mexico.

Democrats support enhanced border security but will not help fund an “ineffective, Medieval border wall,” Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the incoming House Democratic caucus chairman, said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had lunch with Trump on Sunday at the White House, and told reporters afterward that the president is receptive to a making a deal -- and “there’s a deal to be had, I think” involving broader immigration issues such as protection for so-called Dreamers who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

There was compromise legislation proposed in February with $25 billion over a decade for border security and a path to citizenship for Dreamers, but Trump opposed it as a “giant amnesty.”

The wall has become a metaphor for border security, Graham said, adding that Democrats who’ve supported funding for barriers in the past shouldn’t be opposed now just because Trump favors it, Graham said.

“The president is not asking for too much, and we’re going to put on the table some ideas that have been embraced in the past,” Graham said. “The question is, can we stop hating each other enough up here to find a way forward that’d be a win-win.’’

The pledge for a wall was central to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, and he’s refused to sign any spending bill from Congress that didn’t give him the resources to follow through. That caused government funding for nine federal departments to lapse on Dec. 21.

“The only way to stop drugs, gangs, human trafficking, criminal elements and much else from coming into our Country is with a Wall or Barrier,” Trump tweeted on Dec. 23. “Drones and all of the rest are wonderful and lots of fun, but it is only a good old fashioned Wall that works!”

But Trump has also tweeted that he’s not seeking a concrete wall, and outgoing White House Chief of Staff John Kelly also used a broader definition of the border wall in an interview with the Los Angeles Times published on Sunday.

“To be honest, it’s not a wall,” Kelly said. “The president still says ‘wall’ -- oftentimes frankly he’ll say ‘barrier’ or ‘fencing,’ now he’s tended toward steel slats. But we left a solid concrete wall early on in the administration.” On Dec. 21 Trump tweeted a photograph of a “steel slat barrier” he termed “totally effective while at the same time beautiful!”

Later on Sunday, Trump tweeted that former President Barack Obama has “a ten foot Wall around” his Washington residence. “The U.S. needs the same thing, slightly larger version!”

In an interview on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said the administration wants about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) of a border wall system and “not just a dumb barrier.”

“We’re talking about sensors, cameras, lighting, access roads for our agents -– a system that helps us secure that area of the border,” McAleenan said. “It’s a multifaceted approach.”

Republicans have criticized Democrats such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for voting in favor of the Secure Fence Act in 2006 but opposing Trump’s demand for a wall. Schumer said he’ll only consider offers from Trump himself regarding border security and government funding because “different people from the same White House are saying different things about what the President would accept or not accept.”

Trump, who said during a Dec. 11 meeting that he would not blame Schumer and would “take the mantle of shutting down” the government over border security, included “#SchumerShutdown” in a tweet on Sunday that also sought to take credit for Coast Guard members getting paid while Democrats “left town.”

Democrats offered a spending bill that would continue current levels of government funding, including $1.3 billion for border security. House Republicans this month passed a spending package that includes $5.7 billion for the wall, and that bill didn’t have enough support in the Senate to be put to a vote.

Nancy Pelosi is expected to be elected speaker on Jan. 3 when Democrats take control of the House, and the first order of business will be to pass a spending bill that reopens shuttered federal departments without funding the wall, said Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesman. Democrats are “united against the President’s immoral, ineffective and expensive wall,” Hammill said in an email.

Some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have discussed two different ways to reach a compromise: either by adjusting the dollar amount for border security between $1.3 billion and $5 billion, or coming to an agreement on where and what kind of physical barrier can be constructed.

“Our negotiations are at an impasse at the moment,” Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

On the same show, Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana called the stalemate in talks between the White House and congressional leaders “ridiculous.” The Senate passed a bill “a couple of weeks ago to keep the government open, and the House refused to take it up,” Tester said.

(Updates with Graham comments starting in sixth paragraph.)

--With assistance from Daniel Flatley and Ben Brody.

To contact the reporter on this story: Anna Edgerton in Washington at aedgerton@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kevin Whitelaw at kwhitelaw@bloomberg.net, Mark Niquette, Ros Krasny

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