Congress in painful start to avoid second shutdown

Negotiations to avert a partial government shutdown are off to a painfully slow start.

The gang of 17 lawmakers tasked with navigating the political minefield to any potential deal met for the first time this week, in a 77-minute meeting described by lawmakers as “friendly” and filled with “goodwill.”

But there are a few signs a deal will be forthcoming as Congress heads into week two of the tight three-week time frame.

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Further complicating the talks is a back-and-forth between Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump knocks testimony from 'Never Trumpers' at Louisiana rally Jordan calls Pelosi accusing Trump of bribery 'ridiculous' USMCA deal close, but not 'imminent,' Democrats say MORE (D-Calif.) and President TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation MORE, who is doubling down on his threat of declaring a national emergency to build the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyOn The Money: Trump appeals to Supreme Court to keep tax returns from NY prosecutors | Pelosi says deal on new NAFTA 'imminent' | Mnuchin downplays shutdown threat | Trump hits Fed after Walmart boasts strong earnings Overnight Health Care: Cigarette smoking rates at new low | Spread of vaping illness slowing | Dems in Congress push to block Trump abortion rule Lawmakers aim for agreement on top-line spending by next week MORE (R-Ala.), a member of the conference committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, said lawmakers still need to get down to “serious business” if they are going to get an agreement.

Asked what “measurable progress” had been made since Congress passed the continuing resolution on Jan. 25, ending the longest shutdown in U.S. history, Shelby paused.

“Measurable?” he asked. “I don’t think you can measure it yet. I think it’s too early. At least we had the first meeting. We talked. It was benign. ... We’ve got to get serious and substantive.”

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocratic senators introduce bill to push ICE to stop 'overuse' of solitary confinement Pentagon watchdog declines to investigate hold on Ukraine aid Schumer blocks drug pricing measure during Senate fight, seeking larger action MORE (D-Ill.), another member of the conference committee, said he that he was “realistic” about the funding negotiations, which he hoped would move past the “earliest stage” so lawmakers could begin debating funding offers.

After the televised meeting on Wednesday, lawmakers say negotiations have been kicked back down to staff-level talks — a telltale sign on Capitol Hill that an agreement is not on the immediate horizon.

Staffers are expected to continue talking throughout the weekend. Meanwhile, lawmakers said they are eager to hear from Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and border officials and are working to set up meetings with conferees for next week.  

“Let’s bring in the professionals, let’s bring in Customs and Border Protection, let’s bring in the border patrol service, the career professionals and have them tell us what they need,” said Sen. John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenBottom Line Poll: McConnell is most unpopular senator McConnell ups pressure on White House to get a budget deal MORE (R-N.D.), a member of the committee. “I think that helps takes that politics out of it.”  

Lawmakers have less than two weeks until the Feb. 15 deadline to strike a deal on Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall and fund roughly a quarter of the government. If they fail, the second partial government shutdown of the year will begin.

Democrats made an initial offer on Thursday that did little to break the months-long stalemate over border funding, where Trump is demanding $5.7 billion for the wall. Their proposal included money for new customs agents and increased technology along ports of entry but no money for physical barriers along the border.

Trump, meanwhile, lashed out at Democrats during an interview with The New York Times published on Thursday night, saying that “Nancy Pelosi is hurting our country very badly by doing what she’s doing.”

On Friday, he said there’s a “good chance” he will have to declare a national emergency to build the wall, a move that would meet an immediate challenge in the courts, and potentially, Congress. He also hinted that he would provide new details on his plan during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, advising reporters to “listen closely.”

Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyCongress hunts for path out of spending stalemate This week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Senators press NSA official over shuttered phone surveillance program MORE (D-Vt.), characterizing people involved in the negotiations as “grown-ups,” suggested that people were increasingly tuning out the president’s comments about the conference committee.

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“I think the people are paying less and less attention to the tweets. Remember this is a man who said our intelligence officials are incompetent when the rest of the world knows they’re the best,” he said. “So I think the credibility is a little bit lacking. And a lot of Republicans told me they wished he would not do this.”

But Trump has kept the potential for declaring a national emergency on the table, even as he got some of his fiercest warnings to date from top Republicans urging him to back down.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellKavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation Overnight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families On The Money: Trump appeals to Supreme Court to keep tax returns from NY prosecutors | Pelosi says deal on new NAFTA 'imminent' | Mnuchin downplays shutdown threat | Trump hits Fed after Walmart boasts strong earnings MORE (R-Ky.), taking aim at two of the White House’s options, told reporters during a weekly press conference that he wants to avoid “a shutdown and … the president feeling he should declare a national emergency.”

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenate GOP waves Trump off early motion to dismiss impeachment charges Trump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump MORE (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said there is “not much appetite” for an emergency declaration; meanwhile Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Overnight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Senate GOP waves Trump off early motion to dismiss impeachment charges MORE (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell, said lawmakers are trying to “dissuade” Trump and warned he could be challenged by Congress.

After Trump’s address on Tuesday, Congress will have 10 days to meet its deadline.

Pelosi warned reporters that the actual time frame reaching an agreement, if they are going to get it to Trump’s desk by the 15th, is significantly shorter.

“Just so you know in order to have a bill signed by the president by the three weeks we have to have a signed conference report by next Friday,” she told reporters during a weekly press conference.  

Members in both parties are laying down hurdles for any potential deal.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP eager for report on alleged FBI surveillance abuse Johnson opens door to subpoenaing whistleblower, Schiff, Bidens Overnight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families MORE (R-S.C.) is publicly encouraging Trump to declare a national emergency, while a group of prominent House progressives are telling negotiators to give “not another dollar” more in DHS funding.

“If they left it up to the appropriators, if they left it up in the Senate to myself, Sen. Leahy and our House counterparts … I believe we could work this out before tomorrow night,” Shelby said. “We don’t have a unconditional direction from our caucuses, either one, but I wish we did.”

And there are potential “poison pills” that negotiators will need to maneuver around, including, according to Durbin, the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and number of detention beds. Republicans, meanwhile, say there has to be funding for some physical barriers, including a wall or fencing.

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) lashed out at the ongoing rhetorical battle, telling reporters that Pelosi could call it a “wangdoodle” if it helped get negotiators to an agreement.

“It will work like the barrier, fencing, wall, wangdoodle has worked in San Diego, and Yuma and El Paso, again, call it whatever the hell you want,” he said.

“It may turn out this whole exercise is about the 2020 election,” he added. “In which case y’all buckle up because it’s going to be two years of this nonsense.”