US President Donald Trump took to Twitter to ratchet up his demands on his long-stalled border wall, appearing to sour on congressional talks aimed at striking a deal with Democrats that he could sign.
In a barrage of morning tweets, Mr Trump sent mixed messages in which he alternately hardened his wall demand, but also suggested that repairing existing fencing is a big part of his plan.
“Lets just call them WALLS from now on and stop playing political games! A WALL is a WALL!,” Mr Trump tweeted.
However, Mr Trump recently started calling his proposed structure a “steel slat barrier” in an effort to broker a compromise with Democrats
Mr Trump’s tweets came a day after Democrats in the House offered a vague border security plan that would not provide a cent for his wall, ignoring — for now — his warnings that they’d be wasting their time if they don’t come up with wall money.
The Democratic offer was just a starting point in House-Senate talks on border security funding that kicked off in a basement room in the Capitol.
A top Democrat acknowledged that “everything is on the table,” including the border barriers demanded by Mr Trump.
Politicians on both sides flashed signs of flexibility, eager to demonstrate willingness to compromise in hopes of resolving the standoff with Mr Trump that sparked the 35-day partial government shutdown.
But Mr Trump told Republican negotiators that they were “wasting their time.”
“Democrats, despite all of the evidence, proof and Caravans coming, are not going to give money to build the DESPERATELY needed WALL. I’ve got you covered. Wall is already being built, I don’t expect much help!” Mr Trump tweeted.
The high-stakes talks are taking place against the backdrop of another possible shutdown in mid-February — an outcome Mr Trump’s Republican allies in the Senate are especially eager to avoid.
Mr Trump and the White House have proven to be an unpredictable force in the shutdown debate, mixing softer rhetoric about a multifaceted approach to border security with campaign-style bluster about the wall.
Politicians negotiating the bill are well aware that he could move to quash an agreement at any time, plunging them back into crisis.
Still, Mr Trump’s request for $US5.7 billion to build about 376 kilometres of barriers along the US border with Mexico faces uphill odds. Even Mr Trump’s Republican allies acknowledge he may only get a fraction of it.
The Democratic plan includes new money for customs agents, scanners, aircraft and boats to police the border, and to provide humanitarian assistance for migrants.
“Democrats are once again supporting strong border security as an essential component of homeland security. Border security, however, is more than physical barriers; and homeland security is more than border security,” said Democrat Lucille Roybal-Allard.
Senators revisited a bipartisan $US1.6 billion proposal for 100kms of fencing in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas that passed a key committee last year. The panel of old-school politicians from the powerful appropriations committees has ample expertise on homeland security issues, as many of them helped finance fence built over the years that stretches across much of the 3144-kilometre border.
“Because of the work we did years ago we’ve already built almost 1100kms of fencing on our nation’s border,” said Democrat David Price. “Whatever the president may say it is far from an open border. Meanwhile, the number of undocumented immigrants crossing our border or attempting to cross remain not at alarming highs but at historic lows.”
Republican allies of the president said there will have to be some money to meet Mr Trump’s demands. But they also predict privately that the White House is eager to grab an agreement and declare victory — even if winning only a fraction of Mr Trump’s request.
“The components of border security are people, technology and a barrier. And everybody has voted for all three,” said Republican Senator John Hoeven. “To get to an agreement we’ve got to have all three in there.”
But as talks on the homeland security budget open, Mr Trump and Republicans are in a weakened position just 17 days before the government runs out of money again without a deal. Democrats won back the House in a midterm rout and prevailed over Mr Trump in the shutdown battle.
“Smart border security is not overly reliant on physical barriers,” House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, said as the session began. She said the Trump administration has failed to demonstrate that physical barriers are cost effective compared with better technology and more personnel.
The comments at once served notice that Democrats weren’t ruling out financing physical structures, but would do so only on a limited basis.
Republican Senator Richard Shelby, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that while Republicans favour improved border security technology, “Smart technology alone does not actually stop anyone from crossing into the US illegally.”
Sen. Shelby said physical barriers are needed “not from coast to coast, but strategically placed where traffic is highest.”
That echoed recent remarks by Mr Trump as he’s retreated from his more strident comments from the 2016 presidential campaign.
The president surrendered on Friday and agreed to reopen government for three weeks so negotiators can seek a border security deal, but with no commitments for wall funds.
Prospects for broadening the scope of the talks to include broader immigration issues such as providing protection against deportation to “Dreamer” immigrants brought illegally to the country as children — or even must-do legislation to increase the government’s borrowing cap — appeared to be fading.