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Negotiators close to deal as shutdown deadline approaches

Sen. Richard Shelby, shown here before a Homeland Security appropriations meeting on Jan. 30, was upbeat after briefing Trump on the status of the negotiations Thursday. | M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO

Congressional negotiators say they’re close to reaching a deal to avert a shutdown, with Democrats acknowledging that a final compromise would include funding for border barriers — a concession that could spark rebellion within their party.

Lawmakers and aides, however, said Friday that the conference committee remains several days away from a final border security deal as top spending leaders continued to trade offers back and forth.

Negotiators technically have until Feb. 15 to reach an agreement to stave off another shutdown, but lawmakers insist the practical deadline for any agreement is much earlier in the week.

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The current negotiations have narrowed to the most difficult of issues, with Democrats seeking to limit the number of detention beds for undocumented immigrants while Republicans are pushing for the highest funding level for barriers they can get.

But heading into Friday afternoon, an impasse continued over the dollar amount for border fencing or other barriers. Conservative lawmakers were insisting they and President Donald Trump would accept something around $ 2 billion — far below their insistence on $ 5.7 billion that triggered the shutdown in December. But Democrats quickly rejected that amount.

Most lawmakers left town Friday with few details about the state of talks, still referring to a deal as “if,” rather than “when.” Yet both parties remained adamant that the government would not shut down next Friday, eyeing another stopgap bill as a backup plan. Lawmakers from both parties have no appetite to shutter the government again after ending the longest shutdown in history just a few weeks ago.

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee, one of the GOP negotiators, said he is aiming for slightly more than $ 1.6 billion in fencing money, and signaled that Trump had backed off his demands for $ 5.7 billion.

“I think the political reality is, we can’t get to that,” Fleischmann said. “I think he understands that we’re operating under a divided government scenario and we’ve got to get the best deal that we can get.”

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) was upbeat after briefing Trump on the status of the negotiations Thursday. And Fleischmann said Friday he’s heard directly from White House officials that the administration is “much more encouraged” on the status of funding talks.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, one of the lead Democratic negotiators, conceded on Friday that a range of $ 1.6 billion to $ 2 billion for barriers “possibly could be workable.”

“We’re working the best we can to find that middle ground,” she told reporters. “That’s what we’re going to send over to the president and hopefully he’ll accept it and be able to put this aside.”

But a spokesman for House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who is leading the talks, later said Democrats wouldn’t accept $ 2 billion or more in barrier funding.

“We will not agree to $ 2 billion in funding for barriers,” said Lowey spokesman Evan Hollander. “Throughout the talks, Democrats have insisted that a border security compromise not be overly reliant on physical barriers.”

Top Democratic spending leaders will remain in town this weekend while the rest of the negotiators plan to return Sunday evening or early Monday to hopefully sign off on a final deal. Democratic Rep. Pete Aguilar said he plans to attend his child’s birthday party back home in California on Saturday and other members of the panel said they too were traveling to their districts this weekend.

Matthew Whitaker

Conferees must be physically present to sign off on any agreement, and several members of the panel said they now see Monday as the deadline to reach a compromise in order to move it through the House on time without needing a special waiver.

Lowey wouldn’t divulge details of the talks, but said the deal could be completed “hopefully Monday.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Friday he was anticipating a funding deal hitting the floor next week but had no specifics. The Maryland Democrat also deflected a question on the House floor about whether the final deal would include money for physical barriers.

“We are for border security,” Hoyer said on the floor. “I’m hopeful that the conference committee reports out a bill that all sides can support that does, in fact, try to make our borders more secure.”

But some Democrats already admit the deal will likely cost them some votes within the Democratic Caucus, particularly with liberal lawmakers who were demanding negotiators insist on zero funding for physical barriers and decrease spending for the Department of Homeland Security.

“It is unrealistic,” to assume there won’t be any barrier funding in the deal, Roybal-Allard told reporters Thursday. “If the Republicans and the White House are saying they need barriers, wall — whatever you want to call it — and that is an absolute objective, and we’re saying we want some other things. Like in everything else, it’s a trade-off.”

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a top Trump ally, suggested Friday that he could support less than $ 5.7 billion for border security but said it depends on what the money is allocated toward. He and other leaders of the Freedom Caucus met with the president on Thursday.

“It really depends on the detail that’s there,” Meadows said. “It’s not as much about the number as it is the flexibility with what it can construct and what it will do to secure our border.”

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If negotiators can’t reach a deal to his liking, Meadows said he would rather see a yearlong continuing resolution that would keep the current funding levels — which were negotiated by Republicans last year — in place.

“I would be more inclined to encourage [Trump] to do a clean CR and do the national emergency,” Meadows said. “A shutdown is not off the table,” he added, but “no one wants it.”

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), meanwhile, told reporters Thursday that the GOP would be open to a stopgap funding bill, but only “if we’re close, and it looks like there’s serious, honest negotiations going on.”

Democrats have said they would like to avoid a yearlong stopgap funding bill, which would continue funding levels and spending priorities approved when Republicans controlled all levers of government last year.

“Really the worst thing that can happen is if we have to go into a yearlong CR,” said Roybal-Allard. “We’re doing everything we can to avoid that.”

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