US Republicans and Democrats have clashed over whether to limit the number of migrants authorities can detain, tossing a new hurdle before negotiators hoping to strike a border security compromise for Congress to pass this week.
The White House would not rule out a renewed partial US government shutdown if an agreement is not reached.
With the Friday deadline approaching, the two sides remained separated by hundreds of millions of dollars over how much to spend to construct President Donald Trump’s promised border wall.
But rising to the fore was a related dispute over curbing Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency that Republicans see as an emblem of tough immigration policies and Democrats accuse of often going too far.
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, in appearances on NBC’s Meet The Press and Fox News Sunday, said “you absolutely cannot” eliminate the possibility of another shutdown if a deal is not reached over the wall and other border matters.
The White House had asked for 5.7 billion US dollars (£4 billion), a figure rejected by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, and the mood among bargainers has soured, according to people familiar with the negotiations.
“You cannot take a shutdown off the table, and you cannot take 5.7 (billion) off the table,” Mr Mulvaney told NBC, “but if you end up someplace in the middle, yeah, then what you probably see is the president say, ‘Yeah, OK, and I’ll go find the money someplace else’.”
A congressional deal seemed to stall even after Mr Mulvaney convened a bipartisan group of politicians at Camp David, the presidential retreat in northern Maryland.
While the two sides seemed close to clinching a deal late last week, significant gaps remain and momentum appears to have slowed.
Although congressional Democratic aides asserted that the dispute had caused the talks to break off, it was initially unclear how damaging the rift was.
Both sides are eager to resolve the long-running battle and avert a fresh closure of dozens of federal agencies that would begin next weekend if Congress does not act by Friday.
“I think talks are stalled right now,” Senator Richard Shelby said on Fox News Sunday. “I’m not confident we’re going to get there.”
Senator Jon Tester, who appeared on the same programme, agreed: “We are not to the point where we can announce a deal.”
But Mr Mulvaney did signal that the White House would prefer not to have a repeat of the last shutdown, which stretched more than a month, left more than 800,000 government workers without paychecks, forced a postponement of the State of the Union address and sent Mr Trump’s poll numbers tumbling.
As support in his own party began to splinter, Mr Trump surrendered after the shutdown hit 35 days without getting money for the wall.
This time, Mr Mulvaney signalled that the White House may be willing to take whatever congressional money comes — even if less than Trump’s goal — and then supplement that with other government funds.
“The president is going to build the wall. That’s our attitude at this point,” Mr Mulvaney said on Fox. “We’ll take as much money as you can give us, and we’ll go find the money somewhere else, legally, and build that wall on the southern border, with or without Congress.”
In a series of tweets about the issue, Mr Trump used the dispute to cast Democrats as soft on criminals.
He charged in one tweet: “The Border Committee Democrats are behaving, all of a sudden, irrationally. Not only are they unwilling to give dollars for the obviously needed Wall (they overrode recommendations of Border Patrol experts), but they don’t even want to take muderers (sic) into custody! What’s going on?”.
Democrats have proposed reducing the current number of beds ICE uses to detain immigrants here illegally from 40,520 to 35,520.
But within that limit, they have also proposed limiting to 16,500 the number for immigrants here illegally caught within the US, including criminals. Republicans want no caps on the number of immigrants who have committed crimes who can be held by ICE.