Tentative deal reached to avoid second U.S. government shutdown

Congressional negotiators announced an agreement late Monday to prevent another partial U.S. 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, desperate to avoid another bruising shutdown, tentatively agreed to far less money for U.S. President Donald Trump’s border wall than the White House’s $5.7 billion US wish list, settling for a figure of about $1.4 billion US, according to a senior congressional aide.

“We reached an agreement in principle,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Richard Shelby, a Republican, 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, who is a Democrat.

Details won’t be officially released until Tuesday, but the pact came in time to alleviate any threat of a second partial government shutdown this weekend.

The agreement includes increased funds for new technologies such as advanced screening at border entry points, humanitarian aid sought by Democrats, and additional customs officers.

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.”

U.S. President Donald Trump greets supporters as he disembarks Air Force One after landing in Texas at El Paso International Airport Monday. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

As the talks were going on in Washington, Trump headed to the Texas border Monday to argue his case that walls work.

He has been adamant that Congress approve money for a wall along the Mexican border, though he no longer repeats his 2016 mantra that Mexico will pay for it.

Trump told the crowd at his rally that he had heard about progress in the talks before he took the stage, but did not mention details.

“Just so you know – we’re building the wall anyway,” he said, to huge cheers.

Trump gestures to supporters during his rally in El Paso, Texas on Monday. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Democrats carried more leverage into the talks after besting Trump on the December/January 35-day shutdown but showed flexibility in hopes on winning Trump’s signature. After yielding on border barriers, Democrats focused on reducing funding for detention beds to curb what they see as unnecessarily harsh enforcement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

The agreement yielded curbed funding for ICE detention beds, which Democrats promised would mean the agency would hold fewer detainees than the current average of 49,000 detainees held each day. Democrats claimed the number of beds would be ratcheted down to 40,520.

Undocumented immigrant families walk from a bus depot to a respite centre after being released from detention in McAllen, Texas on July 27. (Loren Elliott/Reuters)

But a proposal to cap at 16,500 the number of detainees caught in areas away from the border — a limit Democrats say was aimed at preventing overreach by the agency — ran into its own Republican wall.

Democrats dropped that demand in the Monday round of talks, and the mood in the Capitol improved markedly.

In a case of pointed political counterprogramming, Beto O’Rourke, the former Democratic congressman from Texas now mulling a presidential run, held a Monday evening El Paso march and rally against the wall with dozens of local civic, human rights and Hispanic groups.

Former Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke led his own anti-Trump rally and march Monday in El Paso. (Loren Elliott/Reuters)

He accused Trump of stoking “false fear” about immigrants and telling “lies” about his hometown El Paso, which Trump said was a dangerous place before it had a border fence.

“Here is one of the safest cities in the United States of America, safe not because of walls but in spite of walls,” O’Rourke told a crowd of several thousand supporters, many waving “Beto 2020” signs and wearing “Immigrants Make America Great” baseball caps.

The first duelling rallies of the 2020 election season were set to serve as a preview of a heated years-long fight over the direction of the country. And they made clear that Trump’s long-promised border wall is sure to play an outsized role in the presidential race, as both sides use it to try to rally their supporters and highlight their contrasting approaches.

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