Republican and Democratic negotiators are exchanging border security proposals that contain far less funding for the border wall than President Donald Trump has demanded, with just days left before a deadline to release their bill ahead of another potential government shutdown.
The latest proposals peg the topline funding number for border barriers around $2 billion, according to two people familiar with the talks. That number is far below the $5.7 billion that Trump has requested and repeatedly described as the number he wants met, but is in line with where people familiar with the talks thought an agreement may end.
Meanwhile, conservative lawmakers on the board of the House Freedom Caucus met Thursday at the White House with Trump about border security funding, according to a source familiar with the discussion. GOP Reps. Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan were among those at the meeting, which the source described as productive. Freedom Caucus members were among the conservatives who urged Trump in December to shut down the government if he could not secure wall funding at that level.
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, a Tennessee Republican on the conference committee who touted progress on the talks to reporters on Friday, said GOP conferees are pushing to get the number above $2 billion.
"I want the highest possible number we can get, but I would hope it would be north of ($2 billion)," Fleischmann said.
A 2018 bipartisan Department of Homeland Security funding measure in the Senate allocated $1.6 billion for border barrier construction, and it restricted the type of barriers to fencing, bollard fencing and repairs to current barriers. The full Senate did not pass that measure, however, and the House did not consider it. Similar structural restrictions, which Democrats on the panel have said are paramount to any deal, are being discussed by negotiators in the current talks.
Fleischmann is among a handful of lawmakers invited by acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to meet over the weekend at Camp David, the presidential retreat. White House aides described the meeting as a bipartisan meet-and-greet, not an attempt to intervene in the spending talks on Capitol Hill. Democratic Reps. Henry Cuellar, Peter Welch and John Yarmuth also plan to attend the meeting, according to their aides.
Trump also met Thursday with Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, about the status of negotiations over border security funding. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a top GOP ally to Trump, also told reporters he planned to meet the President on Thursday -- signaling the President's increasing engagement on an issue he has mostly left to Congress since ending the shutdown two weeks ago.
Just last week, Trump attacked the conference talks as a waste of time, but those who met with him Thursday described the President as optimistic about the prospects for an agreement.
White House aides express a sense of growing optimism that lawmakers will reach a deal to avert another shutdown -- a shift in tone from earlier in the process when administration officials expected Trump to declare a national emergency or use some other form of executive action in an attempt to tap into existing federal funds.
But what exactly the President would support remains unclear. While some aides suggest he is likely to back a deal that funds the wall at less than $5.7 billion if it emerges from conference, Trump himself has not yet signaled whether he would back down on his demand, and similar efforts to compromise on the price tag of his wall have fallen apart previously.