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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 PelosiSenators given no timeline on removal of National Guard, Capitol fence Democratic fury with GOP explodes in House House Republican attempts to appeal fine for bypassing metal detector outside chamber MORE (D-Calif.) and President TrumpDonald TrumpSenators given no timeline on removal of National Guard, Capitol fence Democratic fury with GOP explodes in House Georgia secretary of state withholds support for 'reactionary' GOP voting bills 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: Senate panels postpone Tanden meetings in negative sign | Biden signs supply chain order after 'positive' meeting with lawmakers Passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy Shelby endorses Shalanda Young for OMB director should Biden pull Tanden's nomination 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 DurbinDick DurbinMurkowski undecided on Tanden as nomination in limbo Democrats ask FBI for plans to address domestic extremism following Capitol attack Progressive support builds for expanding lower courts 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 HoevenBiden reignites immigration fight in Congress McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Senate GOP opposition grows to objecting to Electoral College results 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 LeahyPress: The big loser: The Republican Party Senate acquits Trump in 57-43 vote Trump lawyer irked after senators laugh at him 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 McConnellKlain on Manchin's objection to Neera Tanden: He 'doesn't answer to us at the White House' Democratic fury with GOP explodes in House Murkowski undecided on Tanden as nomination in limbo 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 ThunePassage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy Senate GOP campaign chief talks strategy with Trump Graham, Trump huddle to talk GOP's 2022 strategy MORE (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said there is “not much appetite” for an emergency declaration; meanwhile Sen. John CornynJohn CornynPassage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy Biden signs supply chain order after 'positive' meeting with lawmakers Democrats look to improve outreach to Asian and Latino communities 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 GrahamPassage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy Progressive support builds for expanding lower courts McConnell backs Garland for attorney general 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.”