Scrambling to avoid a shutdown

Lawmakers are pressing to avoid the second government shutdown of the year as they battle over President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats' CNN town halls exposed an extreme agenda Buttigieg says he doubts Sanders can win general election Post-Mueller, Trump has a good story to tell for 2020 MORE’s demand for a border wall and new funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Key lawmakers met repeatedly Monday as they sought to reach a deal before a Feb. 15 deadline for avoiding a shutdown.

“We haven’t broken it yet, but we’re talking seriously,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig Shelby20 Dems demand no more money for ICE agents, Trump wall Conservatives urge Trump to stick with Moore for Fed Poll: Roy Moore leading Alabama GOP field MORE (R-Ala.) told reporters.

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“It’s a very sincere discussion, and we haven’t gotten to any conclusion yet,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyTrolling of Bill Barr shows how language is twisted to politics Barr says Mueller report will be released 'within a week' Live coverage: Barr faces House panel amid questions over Mueller report MORE (D-N.Y.).

Lawmakers were set to meet at 8 p.m. to renew talks aimed at reaching a deal.

“I think we both agree that we can wrap this up tonight, do it tonight, not go over until tomorrow,” Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyDurbin calls Mueller report findings on Trump team 'troubling' 20 Dems demand no more money for ICE agents, Trump wall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump, Dems prep for Mueller report's release MORE (Vt.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters ahead of the meeting.

Perhaps the best reason to think there will not be another partial shutdown closing about a quarter of the government is the clear desire members have to avoid it. The last one took a bite out of the economy and Trump’s approval numbers; Democrats were largely seen as winning the political battle.

“Let me say very clearly, I don’t think Democrats or Republicans want a shutdown. So, one option or another, we will resolve this,” Lowey said.

Yet a fight over funding for ICE, which Republicans say is being pushed by House Democrats, has become a new hurdle to a deal.

Lawmakers still think a limited deal is possible, which would give Trump some funding for border barriers but less than the $5.7 billion he has requested. 

Several senior Senate Democrats told The Hill that a deal is close, and the substantive legislative issues aren’t that hard to resolve. 

But they say the battle of political wills between Trump and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiTrevor Noah on lack of Pelosi nickname from Trump: 'There is a reverence for her' Trump says he would challenge impeachment in Supreme Court The Hill's Morning Report - Will Joe Biden's unifying strategy work? MORE (D-Calif.) is a big obstacle.

Congressional leaders had hoped to keep the drama to a minimum by setting up a special Senate-House conference committee made up of appropriators who are used to negotiating bills together. 

That was intended to insulate the talks, which are being buffeted by larger political forces.  

Trump lashed out at Democrats on Monday for demanding to cap the number of beds used by ICE to detain immigrants in the country illegally — which has emerged as a key point in the new talks.

“The Democrats do not want us to detain, or send back, criminal aliens! This is a brand new demand. Crazy!” the president tweeted. 

In a sign of waning hope for a deal, the White House on Monday signaled interest in a long-term stopgap continuing resolution (CR) for the seven unfinished spending bills. It received immediate support from House conservatives. 

“I would be supportive of a one-year CR for the remaining appropriation bills. I know the conversations are fluid and there is still hope that the conference committee will reach a satisfactory compromise,” said House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller aftermath: What will House Dems do now? Mueller report poses new test for Dems Washington in frenzy over release of Mueller report MORE (R-N.C.).  

House Democrats immediately threatened to block the proposal, putting the Capitol on alert for another shutdown. 

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“Democrats cannot support a full-year CR for Homeland Security without significant anomalies. A so-called clean full-year CR for Homeland Security would allow the Trump administration to increase funding for both physical barriers and ICE detention beds,” said a House Democratic aide. 

In a leadership meeting Saturday, Democratic staff proposed capping the number of detention beds at 16,500 for those apprehended in the interior of the country and not at the border.  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Will Joe Biden's unifying strategy work? Dems charge ahead on immigration Biden and Bernie set for clash MORE (R-Ky.) accused Democrats of “slipping a poison-pill demand into the conversations at the eleventh hour.”

“This would result in the release of thousands of criminal aliens and our inability to detain thousands more criminal aliens whom our federal and state law enforcement authorities will apprehend,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. 

ICE acting Deputy Director Matt Albence also pushed back at the demand, arguing the cap “will be extremely damaging to the public safety of this country.”

He estimated there are approximately 20,000 to 22,000 immigrants in custody, including many who have criminal convictions, and argued that “we will be immediately forced to release convicted criminals in our custody.”

Democratic negotiators presented an opening offer on Jan. 31 that included funding for an average daily population of 35,520 detainees. But it limited the average daily population in detention centers to 16,500 between the date of a possible deal’s enactment and the end of fiscal 2019. 

Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget request asked for funding for 52,000 detention beds.

Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore Capito20 Dems demand no more money for ICE agents, Trump wall We can accelerate a cure for Alzheimer's Gillibrand, Grassley reintroduce campus sexual assault bill MORE (R-W.Va.), a negotiator and the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Homeland Security, said the Democratic proposal was “definitely coming from the House side” when asked whether Pelosi was behind the new demand.

More centrist Democratic senators have privately expressed concern that the debate over ICE detention beds could eclipse Trump’s border wall as the main sticking point — potentially to the detriment of Democrats, politically.

Another outstanding issue is a dispute over which immigrants should be defined as “criminals” and detained, according to a senior Democratic senator briefed on the talks. And that question is at the center of the fight over beds.

“ICE has become a big obstacle,” Shelby told reporters before meeting with the other negotiators Monday. “We need to resolve it this week if we can.”

Shelby, who has advocated for months in favor of passing the regular spending bills, didn’t show much enthusiasm for a long-term stopgap — though he notably did not rule it out.

“I don’t know anybody that wants a shutdown,” he said. “People don’t want one, but they might get one. I know McConnell doesn’t, I don’t. I don’t believe Schumer wants one,” he said of Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMJ Hegar announces Texas Senate bid Hillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars Dem legal analyst says media 'overplayed' hand in Mueller coverage MORE (D-N.Y.).

Lowey, the top House Democratic negotiator, said all options are on the table to avoid a shutdown, while Rep. Kay GrangerNorvell (Kay) Kay GrangerGOP, Dems balk at latest Trump foreign aid cuts On The Money: Trump issues first veto, warning of 'reckless' resolution | US hits Russia with new sanctions | Dems renew push for contractor back pay | Lawmakers seek probe into undocumented workers at Trump businesses House Dems renew push for government contractor back pay MORE (Texas), the senior House GOP negotiator, said Trump will have the final say on what Republicans will agree to. 

“The White House is letting us negotiate, the White House will make a decision on whether the president signs what we propose,” she said.

Looming over the talks is the possibility that Trump could declare a national emergency to build his wall on the border — and theoretically fund beds for ICE as well.

Some Republicans have urged Trump not to take that step, which they worry would set a bad precedent. But others have expressed support for the idea, keeping it alive.

Juliegrace Brufke, Jordain Carney and Jordan Fabian contributed.