WASHINGTON -- Congressional negotiators announced an agreement late Monday to prevent a government shutdown and finance construction of new barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, overcoming a late-stage hang-up over immigration enforcement issues that had threatened to scuttle the talks.
Republicans were desperate to avoid another bruising shutdown. They tentatively agreed to far less money for President Donald Trump's border wall than the White House's $5.7 billion wish list, settling for a figure of about $1.4 billion, according to a senior congressional aide.
"We reached an agreement in principle," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., appearing with a bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers who concurred.
"Our staffs are just working out the details," said House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.
Details won't be officially released until today, but the pact came in time to alleviate any threat of a second partial government shutdown this weekend.
Shelby had earlier pulled the plug on the talks over Democratic demands to limit immigrant detentions by federal authorities, but Democrats yielded ground on that issue in a fresh round of talks on Monday.
Asked if Trump would back the deal, Shelby said, "We believe from our dealings with them and the latitude they've given us, they will support it. We certainly hope so."
White House officials and lawmakers viewed Monday's meeting as a pivotal juncture that could determine whether more than a dozen federal agencies remain operating in five days.
Trump attempted to put the onus on Democrats to broker a deal. Asked by reporters Monday if the government would shut down again on Saturday, he responded "that's up to the Democrats."
Lawmakers had hoped to reach an agreement by midday Monday, a timeline they thought was sufficient to win House and Senate approval this week. But talks broke down over the weekend, leading to acrimonious finger-pointing and angry outbursts from the White House.
To avert a partial shutdown set to begin Saturday, the House and Senate must pass identical spending bills that Trump would then need to sign into law.
If no deal emerges, lawmakers and the White House would have to find some other way to keep the government open. One option under consideration would be to pass a package of full-year spending bills for all impacted government agencies except the Homeland Security Department, which could then potentially be funded on a short-term basis, according to two officials familiar with the discussions.
The White House is open to that approach, and Lowey said Democrats could be open to it if necessary. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
People involved in the talks say Democrats have proposed limiting the number of immigrants in the U.S. illegally who are caught inside the U.S. -- not at the border -- that the agency can detain. Republicans say they don't want that cap to apply to immigrants caught committing crimes, but Democrats do.
Negotiators refer to this cap as representing the number of "beds" that the government can use for detentions.
"ICE is being asked to ignore the laws that Congress has already passed," said Immigration and Customs Enforcement Deputy Director Matt Albence on a media call organized by the White House. "It will be extremely damaging to the public safety of this country. If we are forced to live within a cap based on interior arrests we will immediately be forced to release criminal aliens that are currently sitting in our custody."
Democrats say they proposed their cap to force Immigration and Customs Enforcement to concentrate its internal enforcement efforts on dangerous immigrants, not those who lack legal authority to be in the country but are productive and otherwise pose no threat. Democrats have proposed reducing the current number of beds the agency uses to detain immigrants here illegally from 40,520 to 35,520.
But within that limit, they've also proposed limiting to 16,500 the number for immigrants here illegally caught within the U.S., including criminals. Republicans want no caps on the number of immigrants who've committed crimes who can be held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Republicans went on the attack Monday over Democrats' demands, which McConnell called an "absurd last-minute poison pill" and "a get-out-of-jail-free card for criminals because the radical left doesn't like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement."
"This provision would rightly be a total non-starter for the White House," McConnell said on the Senate floor.
But Democrats have said the Republican descriptions mischaracterize their position. They said the White House's insistence on excluding people charged or convicted of crimes, even nonviolent drug offenses, would give the White House almost limitless power to detain people and make existing rules irrelevant.
"How the government deals with ICE is a very important issue," Lowey said. "And that's why the beds are so critical to this negotiation. Period."
Lawmakers frequently run up against deadlines to pass spending bills, but it's unclear whether they can rely on the most commonly used fallback plans this time. Often, lawmakers will seek to pass short-term spending bills that last for several weeks in order to buy more time for negotiations. But they have already done that several times in recent months, and it's uncertain whether they would take that step again.
The president's supporters have suggested that Trump could use executive powers to divert money from the federal budget for wall construction, though it was unclear if he would face challenges in Congress or the courts. One provision of the law lets the Defense Department provide support for counterdrug activities.
But declaring a national emergency remained an option, White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said, even though many in the administration have cooled on the prospect. A number of powerful Republicans, including McConnell, have also warned against the move, believing it usurps power from Congress and could set a precedent for a future Democratic president to declare an emergency for a liberal political cause.
White House officials have said they would give the current negotiations a chance to succeed before moving forward with their plan, but they haven't revealed an openness to delaying any longer.
Unlike with the fight over the border wall, which a majority of Americans oppose, Republicans say they are on strong political ground if the fight becomes centered on whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement has free rein to detain convicted or suspected criminals.
"The wall is unpopular. Enforcing the law is popular," said Michael Steel, a GOP strategist and former top House aide. "This is particularly difficult terrain for Democrats to fight on. I think that most people want the laws enforced, and they expect that if illegal immigrants break the law, that they will be detained."
A number of federal departments are only funded through Friday, and lawmakers are trying to agree on a long-term spending bill that would ensure these departments have money through September.
The negotiations have largely centered on spending and rules for the Department of Homeland Security. Trump has said rules must be overhauled to stop people from entering the U.S. illegally from Mexico. He wants a wall and other rule changes.
A partial shutdown could have a broad impact on the country. Not only would funding lapse for the Department of Homeland Security on Saturday, but it would hit a number of other agencies, including the Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, Agriculture and Interior departments, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the IRS.
During the last government shutdown, which began Dec. 22 and lasted 35 days, 800,000 federal employees went without pay. Many of them were still ordered to work, without pay, for the duration of the shutdown, in order to minimize the impact on the public.
Eight immigrant families who were separated under Trump administration policy filed claims Monday seeking millions of dollars in damages for what a lawyer called "inexplicable cruelty" that did lasting damage to parents and children.
The parents accused immigration officers of taking their children away without giving them information and sometimes mocking them or denying them a chance to say goodbye. One Guatemalan woman alleged that an immigration officer said her 5-year-old son would be taken, then taunted, "Happy Mother's Day."
The claims allege that many children remain traumatized even after being reunited with their parents, including a 7-year-old girl who won't sleep without her mother and a 6-year-old boy who is reluctant to eat.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.
The Trump administration has acknowledged it separated more than 2,000 families last year through the implementation of a zero-tolerance policy intended to crack down on Central American migration at the U.S.-Mexico border. Government watchdogs have also said it's unclear how many families were separated in total because agencies did not keep good enough records as the policy was implemented.
Information for this article was contributed by Erica Werner, Damian Paletta, Sean Sullivan and Seung Min Kim of The Washington Post; and by Jonathan Lemire, Alan Fram, Catherine Lucey, Hope Yen, Andrew Taylor, Lisa Mascaro, Julie Walker and Nomaan Merchant of The Associated Press.
A Section on 02/12/2019
Print Headline: Revived budget talks lead to tentative deal