Scrambling to avoid a shutdown

Lawmakers are pressing to avoid the second government shutdown of the year as they battle over President TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice Department preparing for Mueller report as soon as next week: reports Smollett lawyers declare 'Empire' star innocent Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration 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 ShelbyHow the border deal came together Winners and losers in the border security deal GOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration 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 LoweyOn The Money: Trump declares emergency at border | Braces for legal fight | Move divides GOP | Trump signs border deal to avoid shutdown | Winners, losers from spending fight | US, China trade talks to resume next week How the border deal came together Winners and losers in the border security deal 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 LeahyThe Hill's Morning Report - Can Bernie recapture 2016 magic? Leahy endorses Sanders for president ‘Contingency’ spending in 3B budget deal comes under fire 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 PelosiWhy Omar’s views are dangerous Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration Overnight Defense: Graham clashed with Pentagon chief over Syria | Talk grows that Trump will fire Coats | Coast Guard officer accused of domestic terrorism plot 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 — Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine — Trump, Congress prepare for new border wall fight Winners and losers in the border security deal GOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration 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 McConnellFox News has covered Ocasio-Cortez more than any 2020 Dem besides Warren: analysis Durbin after reading Green New Deal: 'What in the heck is this?' Dems think they're beating Trump in emergency declaration battle 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 CapitoDems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants GOP senator: Border deal is 'a very good compromise' Push to include contractor back pay in funding deal hits GOP roadblock 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 SchumerGOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats National emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win House Judiciary Dems seek answers over Trump's national emergency declaration 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 GrangerOn The Money: Trump declares emergency at border | Braces for legal fight | Move divides GOP | Trump signs border deal to avoid shutdown | Winners, losers from spending fight | US, China trade talks to resume next week How the border deal came together Winners and losers in the border security deal 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.