Government shutdown: Lawmakers near a solution to avoid shutdown as Friday deadline looms

Eliza Collins

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers were feeling hope again. 

After two meetings in the Capitol and set to huddle a third time, a bipartisan group of key lawmakers seemed to be chiseling away at their impasse from over the weekend.

"We're talking about serious, serious, serious things and we hopefully making some progress,"Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby, R-Ala., told reporters after the group met for a second time Monday. 

"We both agreed if we can wrap this up to do it tonight, to do it tonight, not go until tomorrow," Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the committee's top Democrat followed. He invoked the pair's long history of working together on a bipartisan basis. 

The two senators had been meeting with House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and the top Republican on the committee, Kay Granger of Texas

The group seeks a way out of an impasse over border security and internal enforcement four days before parts of the government are set to shut down again, absent a deal.

On Sunday Shelby had said he saw a "50/50 chance" that the group could come to a deal. But Monday night he said "the odds have improved, but we still have not crystalized it." 

As Congress races against a Friday deadline to strike a deal or risk another government shutdown, President Donald Trump will head to El Paso for a political rally – his first since the November midterm election. Trump accused Democrats of acting "irrationally" on border issues in a tweet over the weekend. 

The group is part of a bipartisan, bicameral committee of appropriators selected to find a solution that can pass Congress and get support from the president before some of the government's funding lapses Friday at midnight.

"I don't think Democrats or Republicans want a shutdown. One option or another, we will resolve this," Lowey said earlier in the day.

Until this weekend, the biggest sticking point for the group had been how to deal with the president’s demand for a $5.7 billion wall along the southern border. During the last shutdown, Democrats refused to give him the money, saying the wall would be costly and ineffective.

Last week, they explored a compromise involving some sort of structure, though the figures discussed were far less than Trump’s initial request.

“I think that we expect that if the evidence supports the notion for enhanced fencing moving forward, that we will find some bipartisan consensus,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York said last week.

The president and Shelby expressed optimism about a deal last Thursday. 

By Sunday, Shelby was less hopeful.

“I think the talks are stalled right now,” Shelby said on "Fox News Sunday," adding that the disagreement centered on Democrats' demands for a cap on detentions by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Democrats said ICE routinely detains more immigrants than it needs to, imprisoning those who don’t have criminal backgrounds and pose no threat to national or domestic security. That’s why they want to set a hard cap on the number of immigrants ICE detains, the goal being to force the agency to focus its resources on violent criminals.

“This agency needs checks and balances, so the Republicans want to get more wall money and Democrats want to get controls on ICE. This is what a negotiation looks like,” said Kerri Talbot of the advocacy group Immigration Hub.

Republicans said a detention cap would force the release of undocumented immigrants in custody and warned of the risk that many might not show up for scheduled hearings on whether they should be deported.

Matthew Albence, deputy director of ICE, said a cap on ICE detainees would be "damaging to public safety."

"We will immediately be forced to release criminal aliens sitting in our custody" if the cap is put in place, Albence said. 

In a tweet Monday morning, Trump accused the Democrats of a brand new demand, and he told reporters ICE was "very disrespected by the Democrats.”

Later in the morning, on the Senate floor, McConnell piled on, accusing Democrats of "a poison-pill demand" at "the 11th hour." 

Lowey expressed surprise at McConnell's comments Monday afternoon: "I've worked with Mitch McConnell, and we've accomplished a lot together. I'm sorry that is his interpretation of where things are." 

House Democrats pointed out that the 16,500 cap on ICE beds has been part of the Democrats' proposal since it was first included in their opening offer Jan. 31.

"How the government deals with ICE is a very important issue, and that's why the beds are so critical to this negotiation, period," Lowey said. 

Federal data show that violent criminals make up a minority of the immigrants in ICE detention. The most common charges against those immigrants are driving under the influence, traffic violations, drug charges and immigration violations.

The Trump administration reversed an Obama-era policy of focusing its immigration enforcement efforts on undocumented immigrants with serious criminal records. Under the Obama administration, ICE agents were ordered to find and arrest specific undocumented immigrants with criminal records and to not arrest other immigrants who happened to be in the area at the time of the arrest. Trump overturned that policy, allowing ICE agents to arrest any suspects they come across during their day-to-day operations.

That has led to a rapid drop in the percentage of arrested immigrants who have a criminal record.

Sen. Jon Tester – a member of the conference committee and a moderate Democrat from Montana – said Monday that he was hopeful before the meeting between the appropriations group's leaders. 

"I've talked to both sides," Tester said. "I think there is a sweet spot to be found here, where both sides can claim victory."

Last month, the government reopened after the longest partial government shutdown on record: 35 days.

If Congress can’t reach a deal that the president supports, funding for about a quarter of the government will run out and 800,000 workers could be forced to go without pay, again.

White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said on Fox News Sunday that a shutdown  was “still on the table. We do not want it to come to that, but that option is still open to the president and will remain so.”

Contributing: Alan Gomez, John Fritze

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Government shutdown: Lawmakers near a solution to avoid shutdown as Friday deadline looms