Talks Over Border Security Break Down, Imperiling Effort to Prevent Shutdown
WASHINGTON — Congressional efforts to reach a border security deal ahead of another government shutdown broke down on Sunday over Democratic demands to limit the detention of undocumented immigrants, as President Trump moved more troops to the border and prepared to rally supporters in Texas on Monday.
The 17 House and Senate negotiators had hoped to finalize a border security agreement on Monday, but hours before that deadline, communications had stopped, lawmakers and aides said.
Meantime, the Trump administration was moving on its own to fortify the southwestern border with thousands of active-duty military troops. The number of deployed troops on the Mexican border was set to exceed the high of 5,900 reached around the November elections, as nearly 4,000 active-duty troops were being sent to assist with the Department of Homeland Security’s border patrol efforts.
Senior officers are voicing greater worries that the deployed troops are not conducting the missions and training needed for their regular missions, while other military units must now pick up the routine duties on behalf of their deployed colleagues.
But efforts to reach a broader, bipartisan deal on border security bogged down, days before much of the government is set to run out of funds at midnight Friday, with memories of the 35-day partial government shutdown — the nation’s longest in history — still fresh.
“I’ll say 50-50 we get a deal,” Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “The specter of a shutdown is always out there.”
The impasse appears to center on Democratic demands for a limit on the number of unauthorized immigrants already in the country who could be detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, according to aides familiar with the talks. Democrats say a cap of 16,500 beds in ICE detention centers would force the Trump administration to focus on detaining undocumented immigrants with criminal records instead of using indiscriminate sweeps that drag in otherwise law-abiding residents.
“For far too long, the Trump administration has been tearing communities apart with its cruel immigration policies,” Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard, Democrat of California and one of the negotiators, said on Sunday. “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.”
Republicans demanded an exception to the cap for criminals, according to an aide familiar with the negotiations. Democrats declined, saying their 16,500-bed cap left more than enough room for real criminals.
But just days after he used his State of the Union address to take an uncompromising line on a border wall, Mr. Trump was being challenged on a new front in the immigration wars. The president took to Twitter on Sunday afternoon to say Democratic negotiators “are behaving, all of a sudden, irrationally.”
“They don’t even want to take muderers into custody! What’s going on?” he said, a charge that Democrats called categorically false.
The looming deadline is exposing fissures in both parties. The more liberal members of the Democratic caucus, many of whom ran on abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement altogether, have been lobbying their colleagues on the committee to resist any increases in ICE funding.
Democratic negotiators held a conference call on Sunday morning to discuss options, according to a Democratic aide, but did not settle on a final decision on how to move forward. Another short-term spending bill could prevent a lapse in funding on Friday, though lawmakers have expressed reluctance at punting again on a final agreement.
Still, Mr. Shelby and Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana and a member of the negotiating committee, said on Sunday that they had not given up.
Other sticking points remain, including how much money to allocate for barriers at the border. Lawmakers were eyeing between $1.3 billion and $2 billion, far less than the $5.7 billion that the president demanded for his signature campaign promise — and shut down the government over in December.
Mr. Trump, who has vacillated between publicly condemning the talks as a “waste of time” and privately showing flexibility, blamed Democratic leadership for the breakdown.
“I don’t think the Dems on the Border Committee are being allowed by their leaders to make a deal,” he wrote on Twitter. “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!”
Pentagon and administration officials spent the weekend preparing for another partial government shutdown — and for the possibility that the president will fulfill his threat to declare a national emergency and fund the wall without Congress. Lawmakers from both parties have expressed extreme discomfort with the prospect of a national emergency declaration, and there is almost universal aversion to another shutdown.
One proposal circulating among some White House officials in an attempt to fend off legal challenges to an emergency declaration is to claim that the wall would be built to protect the more than 5,000 active-duty troops now operating near the southwestern border or deploying there soon.
“The Wall will get built one way or the other!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on Saturday afternoon.
During the last lapse in funding, hundreds of thousands of workers were either furloughed or worked without pay, and it cost the United States economy $11 billion. Another shutdown would hit some agencies at an even worse time. The Internal Revenue Service, for instance, is just entering tax season.
Lawmakers held out the possibility that Mr. Trump could find some face-saving way to fortify border security and build some structures without resorting to a precedent-setting emergency declaration. Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, said the president had asked him to “comb through the law” and “go find money in any place we could” to fully fund a wall.
“There’s pots of money where presidents, all presidents, have access to without a national emergency,” Mr. Mulvaney said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Senior Republican aides said Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, and his leadership team were frustrated with the Democrats because they believed they had persuaded Mr. Trump to agree to a package for border security improvements that consisted mostly of repairs and extensions to existing barriers. Their major concern now, people close to the process said, is that Stephen Miller, the president’s hard-line adviser on immigration, would convince him that accepting a compromise on detention beds would be a humiliation that would cost him with his base.
In what one Defense Department official described as a surreal scramble, Pentagon officials met on Friday and over the weekend to identify which Army Corps of Engineers construction projects would be tapped for money to help build Mr. Trump’s wall if the president declared a national emergency.
Officials scoured the language of multiple draft declarations that Mr. Trump might invoke if a deal is not reached or he rejects what lawmakers agree upon. Mr. Trump’s top national security aides are scheduled to meet on Monday to discuss the matter. Mr. Trump is then to convene a full National Security Council meeting on Tuesday, officials said.
If Mr. Trump declares a national emergency to build the wall, Democrats are expected to sue to block construction and halt any shifting of funds. House Democrats are preparing legislation that would limit the president’s ability to unilaterally commandeer wall funding.
Mr. Trump is set to hold a rally in El Paso on Monday night, using the border city as evidence for his exaggerated claim that a wall would reduce crime.
Prominent Democrats from the area, including Beto O’Rourke, a possible Democratic presidential candidate and former representative for most of the city, and his freshman successor, Representative Veronica Escobar, have denounced Mr. Trump’s claims that El Paso became a safe city only after a physical barrier was built there. Ms. Escobar called the president a liar.
Ms. Escobar was one of a group of lawmakers, including Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, who visited the area before Mr. Trump’s rally.
“It’s frustrating to know that he is still unwilling to acknowledge the truth about immigrants, the truth about the border,” said Ms. Escobar, speaking earlier this week after growing visibly angry as the president made similar claims during his State of the Union address. “He has failed to set out any kind of real plan and real solution.”