Bipartisan negotiators were upbeat but cautious Tuesday as they signaled publicly for the first time they were moving closer together on long-stalled talks related to President Donald Trump’s demands to fund a border wall with Mexico.
But the big question mark is whether Trump will sign onto what the negotiators agree to or scuttle a potential deal and carry out his threat to declare a national emergency and build the wall without the consent of Congress.
“The gap is narrowing so I would say things are moving down and things are moving up,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican and member of the negotiating committee, suggesting Democrats and Republicans were coming off their hardened positions.
Asked if Democrats were coming up from their original offer on border security and the two sides were moving closer to meet in the middle, Sen. Jon Tester, a Democratic negotiator from Montana said, “that’s correct.”
The upbeat assessment came in the hours before Trump is set to deliver his State of the Union address to Congress where he is expected to address the talks that could determine if he can keep his campaign promise to build the wall to stem illegal immigration, drugs and other crime.
It also came a day before negotiators were set to hear testimony from what Republicans described as non-political border security experts in a private session in the Capitol.
Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican who chairs the Appropriations Committee and is spearheading the talks, spoke to Vice President Mike Pence to update him on the progress.
“I told him the environment improved, the tone’s improved. But we are long way from getting there,” Shelby said. “I think (Wednesday) will be important. How the meeting goes tomorrow. What people take out of the meeting and how we act upon, interpret and act on what we learned.”
Asked if he agreed with the assessment of others that the talks were narrowing, Shelby replied, “I’m not at liberty to say, I’m just saying the tone’s improved. We are talking about substance.”
Another Democratic negotiator, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democratic leader, wouldn’t tell reporters if he was prepared to give Trump more money for the border.
“I’m not going to bargain with you here. But I’ll just say the conversation is on and it should be. At this point, I still have some hope, unlike the President,” he said.
Earlier, Durbin said he didn’t believe Democrats would agree for more money for border security.
“I don’t have any other reason to believe otherwise” he said when asked if wall money won’t be in a final deal. He said talks are on hold because they don’t know what Trump will say Tuesday night.
“We are on hold until the speech is completed.”
Shelby defended having the still unnamed border security experts testifying out of public view, arguing they need to be free to be “candid.”
“And we want them to be free to tell us unambiguously what they need, why they need it, and why it’s important,” Shelby said.
CNN’s Margo Snipe contributed to this report.