Talks between Republicans and Democrats were deadlocked just days before a deadline to avoid a second US government shutdown this year, as politicians argued over proposed limits to the country’s border forces.
Policymakers from both sides have spent the past two weeks negotiating over border security measures after President Donald Trump agreed last month to end the country’s longest shutdown and reopen the government for talks to begin.
But as discussions reached the final stages ahead of a Friday deadline, Republicans on Sunday said they had reached a standstill over the number of detention beds that should be allocated to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Speaking on Fox News, Richard Shelby, the senator who leads the Republican negotiating team, said: “I think the talks are stalled right now. I’m hoping we can get off the dime later today or in the morning because time is ticking away.
“But we’ve got some problems with the Democrats dealing with ICE, that is detaining criminals that come into the US and they want a cap on them. We don’t want a cap on that.”
A Republican aide said: “Not only are Dems refusing any new physical barriers, they’re insisting on new ICE limits that would force the release of criminal aliens, including violent felons, not just people who crossed illegally. There’s nothing “cruel” about keeping violent criminals locked up.”
A senior Democratic aide responded that: “Talks have broken down because Senate Republicans are refusing to compromise on limits to the Trump administration’s cruel immigration policies. A deal that includes new physical barriers must include limits on the number of ICE detention beds. If Senate Republicans won’t compromise with us on both, we can’t reach a deal.”
Speaking on ABC News, John Yarmuth, the Democratic chairman of the House budget committee, said: “The big problem here is this has become pretty much an ego negotiation. This really isn’t over substance.
“What needs to happen is Secretary [Kirstjen] Nielsen [the homeland security secretary] needs to come to the Hill and lay out her plans and be questioned on them, so that we can figure out and try to come to an agreement on what the necessary security provisions should be, and then we’ll fund them.”
The US is still reeling from the record 35-day shutdown earlier this year, when Mr Trump refused to reopen the government unless Democrats agreed to $5.7bn in funding for a border wall. The shutdown knocked billions of dollars off the US economy, and underlined the entrenched party divisions which were likely to continue for the next two years in the run-up to the 2020 election.
Mr Trump eventually gave way in his demands, and agreed to reopen the government for three weeks while Republicans and Democrats negotiated over a wider package of border security measures.
Those talks looked close to a successful conclusion late last week, with officials saying both sides had agreed a series of measures worth up to $2bn, which would include funding for barriers on the southern border.
But talks appeared to have stumbled during the weekend over the issue of beds for ICE, the agency that many Democrats blame for enacting the contentious policy of separating migrant families at the border. Some Democrats, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York congresswoman, have called for ICE to be abolished altogether.
Speaking to NBC on Sunday, Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, said he had expected a draft agreement to be published as soon as that afternoon.
But he added: “Let’s say that the hardcore leftwing of the Democrat party prevails [in] this negotiation and they put a bill on the president’s desk with, say, zero money for the wall or $800m, some absurdly low number. How does he sign that? He cannot in good faith sign that. It takes a presidential signature for a spending bill to become law.”
“Is a shutdown entirely off the table? The answer is no.”