Scrambling to avoid a shutdown

Lawmakers are pressing to avoid the second government shutdown of the year as they battle over President TrumpDonald John TrumpGraham to introduce resolution condemning House impeachment inquiry Support for impeachment inches up in poll Fox News's Bret Baier calls Trump's attacks on media 'a problem' 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 ShelbySenators have chance to double funding for women entrepreneurs—they should take it On The Money: Trump dismisses 'phony Emoluments Clause' after Doral criticism | Senate Dems signal support for domestic spending package | House panel to consider vaping tax Senate Dems signal they'll support domestic spending package 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 LoweyOvernight Defense: Trump weighs leaving some troops in Syria to 'secure the oil' | US has pulled 2,000 troops from Afghanistan | Pelosi leads delegation to Afghanistan, Jordan Trump officials say aid to Puerto Rico was knowingly stalled after Hurricane Maria McConnell tees up government funding votes amid stalemate 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 LeahySenators have chance to double funding for women entrepreneurs—they should take it On The Money: Trump dismisses 'phony Emoluments Clause' after Doral criticism | Senate Dems signal support for domestic spending package | House panel to consider vaping tax Senate Dems signal they'll support domestic spending package 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 PelosiGraham to introduce resolution condemning House impeachment inquiry Democrats say they have game changer on impeachment Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg would support delaying Libra | More attorneys general join Facebook probe | Defense chief recuses from 'war cloud' contract | Senate GOP blocks two election security bills | FTC brings case against 'stalking' app developer 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 MeadowsMulvaney faces uncertain future after public gaffes Testimony from GOP diplomat complicates Trump defense Obama: Cummings showed us 'the importance of checks and balances' 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 McConnellGraham to introduce resolution condemning House impeachment inquiry Overnight Defense: Trump's Syria envoy wasn't consulted on withdrawal | McConnell offers resolution urging Trump to rethink Syria | Diplomat says Ukraine aid was tied to political investigations Partisan squabbles endanger congressional response to Trump's course on Syria 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 CapitoGaetz: Some lawmakers reviewed transcript at White House On The Money: Trump takes aim at China in UN address | Consumer confidence fell as trade tensions rose | Senate proposes billion for Trump border wall Senate proposes billion for Trump border wall 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 SchumerTurkey says soldier killed despite cease-fire in Syria Schumer calls for FDA to probe reports of contaminated baby food How Trump and Pelosi went from bad to worse 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 GrangerOvernight Defense: Trump weighs leaving some troops in Syria to 'secure the oil' | US has pulled 2,000 troops from Afghanistan | Pelosi leads delegation to Afghanistan, Jordan Congress hunts for offramp from looming shutdown fight House votes to avert shutdown, fund government through November 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.