US congressional talks to avert second government shutdown over border security break down

White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney arrives for the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on Feb 5, 2019.
White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney arrives for the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on Feb 5, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Talks to avert a second government shutdown over border security funding broke down late on Saturday (Feb 9), and Republicans and Democrats have stopped communicating for now, according to two people familiar with the talks.

The sticking point is over detention beds, both people said, an issue that would typically be regarded as a side-note to the broader talks on the level of funding for border security.

Talks could still get back on track, but the prospect of a longer-lasting deal breaking down seem to have increased. Without a funding deal, nine federal departments and related agencies would shutdown again after Friday. Negotiators had hoped to unveil a deal on Monday to set up votes in the House and Senate before the shutdown deadline.

There are currently 40,520 ICE immigration detention beds funded by Congress. Heading into the talks, the White House sought to increase the number to 52,000 while Democrats wanted a cut to 35,520. Democrats have proposed a 16,500 cap on beds to be used for interior enforcement with the rest to be used for those captured at the border, according to people familiar with the talks.

Democrats also want a provision saying the US Customs and Border Protection agency, which like ICE is part of the Department of Homeland Security, must prioritise capturing violent criminals in using that cap. Republicans have said violent criminals caught inside the US shouldn't count toward the cap. 

50/50

"I'll say 50/50 we'll get a deal," Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby said on "Fox News Sunday." "We've got some problems with the Democrats" over funding for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations.

Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, said on the same broadcast that he was "not positive we'll get to a deal."

 
 

Earlier, Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, said on Sunday that a shutdown isn't the most likely option but that he "absolutely cannot" rule it out.

"He's going to do whatever he legally can to secure the border," Mulvaney said of President Donald Trump on NBC's "Meet the Press," one of two scheduled appearances on Sunday talk shows.

 

"You cannot take a shutdown off the table, and you cannot take US $5.7 (S$7.7 billion) off the table," he said, referring to the level of funds Trump has been demanding for a wall on the US-Mexican border.

Mulvaney spoke as Congressional negotiators continue talks on a security plan that includes some sort of barrier on the border, hoping to complete a deal to avert another government shutdown. It wasn't fair to say that Trump would sign whatever Congress comes up with, Mulvaney said, terming the level of proposed border wall funding "all over the map."

As of Saturday it seemed that negotiators were homing in on a proposal with border barrier funding of between US$1.3 billion and US$2 billion, said a person familiar with the talks.

TRUMP WEIGHS IN

Trump was back in the fray late Saturday afternoon, indicating in a tweet that if Democrats didn't give him all the wall money he has demanded, he may use executive action to build it. Democrats have warned such action would face court challenges, and some Republicans have suggested it's an option best avoided.

Congressional negotiators traded offers throughout the day on Saturday until a breakdown last night, said the people familiar. While the two sides are now said to be close to a dollar amount for border barriers, Democrats are making a higher level of funding for barriers contingent on the new cap for beds - something Republicans are resisting.