WASHINGTON - The nation faces the real possibility of another government shutdown at the end of the week, after bipartisan talks aimed at averting that outcome broke down in a dispute over immigration enforcement, lawmakers and aides said Sunday.
President Donald Trump's border wall demands, which precipitated the record-long 35-day shutdown that ended late last month, were a secondary issue in the impasse that developed over the weekend, according to officials in both parties.
Instead, after looking promising for days, the delicate negotiations collapsed over Democrats' insistence on limiting the number of unauthorized immigrants who can be detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The breakdown in talks made it unlikely that lawmakers will be able to finalize an agreement on Monday, as they'd hope to do so it could pass the House and Senate before Friday night's deadline.
"I think the talks are stalled right now," Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby of Alabama, the lead Republican negotiator, said on Fox News Sunday. "I'm not confident we're going to get there."
The stalemate left the path forward to keeping the government open unclear.
There were some behind-the-scenes efforts to salvage the talks Sunday evening, but it was uncertain whether they would be successful.
The Homeland Security Department along with State, Agriculture, Commerce and a number of other federal agencies are currently operating on a stopgap spending bill that Trump signed Jan. 25. There's little appetite for another short-term funding extension, but without some action by midnight on Feb. 15, those agencies will run out of money and begin to shut down again.
Another funding lapse could affect many Americans within days, because one of the agencies that would go unfunded during the shutdown is the IRS, which is processing tax returns for millions of people. During the 35-day shutdown that began in late December, thousands of IRS officials refused to show up for work without pay, backlogging the tax filing process.
The president, who is scheduled to hold a rally in El Paso, Texas, on Monday night that's likely to focus on his demands for more border security, referenced the disagreement in a tweet on Sunday.
"I don't think the Dems on the Border Committee are being allowed by their leaders to make a deal. They are offering very little money for the desperately needed Border Wall & now, out of the blue, want a cap on convicted violent felons to be held in detention!" the president wrote.
Lawmakers on the 17-member conference committee had been trading offers over how much money could go to barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, and were looking at between $1.3 billion and $2 billion - far short of the $5.7 billion Trump had demanded. The White House had begun to signal flexibility on that issue, even though Trump would end up with much less money than he sought, and the enhanced fencing or other barriers agreed to by Congress would fall short of the 200-plus miles of steel walls he'd wanted.
But throughout the talks, Democrats had also been focused on limiting ICE's ability to detain unauthorized immigrants, which has become a major issue for the party because of their opposition to the Trump administration's aggressive detention tactics. The Democrats' proposal included a new limit on detention beds for immigrants picked up not at the border, but in the interior of the country.
Democrats wanted to cap that number at 16,500, which they said is around the level of interior detentions in the final years of the Obama administration, although it's fewer than the number currently detained under the Trump administration's enforcement policies. Republicans want to exclude a range of immigrants from the cap. These would be people convicted of, or charged with, a variety of crimes, ranging from violent felonies to misdemeanor drug offenses.
But Democrats said that would make the cap toothless, because it would allow ICE to round up numerous people who don't have criminal records and hold an unlimited number of people who, in some cases, have been charged with misdemeanors.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., a member of the conference committee, defended the Democratic position on bed space.
"A cap on ICE detention beds will force the Trump administration to prioritize deportation for criminals and people who pose real security threats, not law-abiding immigrants who are contributing to our country," Roybal-Allard said in a statement.
Democrats, newly in control of the House, have faced pressure from some liberals in their ranks to draw a much harder line in their negotiations over the border. Liberals including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., have proposed entirely cutting funding to ICE, and refusing any additional money for border barriers whatsoever.
Democrats on the bipartisan negotiating committee have resisted those demands. But Republicans quickly seized on the new dispute over detention beds to try to lump all Democrats in with the most liberal elements in the party.
"Now, apparently, not only is it enough they want to abolish ICE. They want to abolish the bed spaces available to the country to house violent offenders, so they can be held and deported," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., said on Fox News Channel. "I promise you this. Donald Trump is not going to sign any bill that reduces the number of bed spaces available to hold violent offenders who come across our border. He can't do that. He won't do that, and you can take that to the bank."
The fight over how many immigrants can be detained at once became extremely problematic in recent days, just as the White House began signaling to negotiators that it would be more flexible on how much money Congress appropriated for a wall along the Mexico border.
White House officials have become increasingly confident that by declaring a national emergency, Trump will be able to redirect billions of dollars in other federal funding to be used for a wall or barriers. One scenario they had prepared for was for Congress to pass a bill appropriating some money for border security and then use the national emergency declaration to loosen even more funds.
This could draw legal challenges from Democrats, landowners and other groups, but White House officials and some external advisers have said it was the best way to proceed.
A total breakdown in talks poses a new set of challenges, however. It dramatically increases the odds of another partial government shutdown beginning Saturday. This would prevent roughly 800,000 federal workers from being paid indefinitely.
During the last shutdown, which began Dec. 22, the White House relied on hundreds of thousands of federal employees to continue coming to work unpaid for more than a month in order for key government services to continue, including Border Patrol agents, Secret Service officers, airport screeners, and air traffic controllers.
Many of the federal employees, however, refused to show up for work and called in sick, including airport screeners and IRS officers, and it's unclear what they would do if there's another shutdown.
Though the odds of a government shutdown have increased markedly in the past 24 hours, negotiators have not said for certain that one will occur. That's because even though there is less than one week left to complete a deal, they still have time to work something out, and often deadlines force legislators to compromise.
"There are bumps in the road, but as long as we stay focused in a bipartisan way, bicameral way, to get this done, I'm hopeful we can get it done," Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., one of the negotiators, said on Fox News Sunday. "Is it a done deal? No it isn't, and we could end up in a train wreck, it's happened before. But I don't think anybody has an appetite for a government shutdown, and I think everybody wants to make sure our borders are secure."
The impasse came as a coalition of sheriffs' groups began lobbying lawmakers against limiting detention beds, calling the proposed cap "artificial" and noted the vast majority of the current ICE detainees - 72 percent - are required to be detained because of convictions or other reasons that mandate detention.
"Capping the number of detention beds utilized by ICE not only jeopardizes the integrity of the immigration system, but would cripple ICE's ability to detain criminal aliens and other aliens who pose a risk to public safety or are a flight risk," the National Sheriffs' Association and the Major County Sheriffs of America said in their letter to congressional appropriators.
ICE has regularly exceeded the current quota set by Congress on immigrant detention, which is 40,520 beds - although that figure is treated generally as a floor, not a ceiling.
For instance, the number of people detained as of Wednesday was 49,057, including 46,590 adults and 2,467 families, according to statistics released by the office of Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a top congressional critic of the administration's immigration policies. On Jan. 30, it was 48,088 - up from 46,492 on Jan. 16.
As of Sunday, a total of 48,747 were in ICE custody, according to an ICE official.
Ray Zaccaro, a spokesman for Merkley, said the figures show that the Homeland Security Department is "working outside of the framework approved by Congress." He accused the administration of "not coming to the table with clean hands" as lawmakers try to hammer out a deal to avert another government shutdown.