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US lawmakers reach tentative deal to avoid government shutdown

Trump still doesn't get money he asked for but 'we're building the wall anyway', he tells supporters at rally in border town

WASHINGTON: US congressional negotiators on Monday reached a tentative deal to try to avert another partial government shutdown on Saturday, but aides said it did not contain the US$5.7 billion (S$7.7 billion) President Donald Trump wants for a border wall.

"We reached an agreement in principle" on funding border security programs through Sept 30, Republican Senator Richard Shelby told reporters. Neither he nor three other senior lawmakers flanking him provided any details of the tentative pact.

But it was far from clear if the Republican president would embrace the agreement. His December demand for $5.7 billion this year to help pay for a wall on the US-Mexico border - rejected by congressional Democrats - triggered a 35-day partial government shutdown that ended last month without him getting any wall funding.

A congressional aide, who asked not to be identified, said the outline of the deal included US$1.37 billion for erecting new fencing along the southern border. That is about the same amount Congress allocated last year and far below what Mr Trump has demanded.

The aide said none of the money would be for a "wall," which Mr Trump has been touting since he launched his campaign for president in 2016. Democrats say the wall would be costly and ineffective.

Two other congressional sources said only current designs could be used for constructing 90 km of additional barriers. The designs, including "steel bollard" fencing, have been in use since before Mr Trump became president.

After the deal was reached in the US Capitol, Mr Trump held a rally in the border city of El Paso, Texas, to argue for the wall he says can protect Americans from violent criminals, drugs and a "tremendous onslaught" of migrant caravans.

Mr Trump said he heard about progress in the talks just before he took the stage, but he too did not discuss details. "Just so you know - we're building the wall anyway," he said. "Maybe progress has been made - maybe not."

COUNTER-RALLY

Mr Beto O'Rourke, the former Democratic congressman from Texas considering a 2020 White House run, held a counter-rally just 200m away and accused Mr Trump of stoking "false fear" about immigrants and telling "lies" about El Paso, which is Mr O'Rourke's hometown.

But a vocal group of conservatives influential with Mr Trump has urged him to remain steadfast in his demand for the border wall money. Fox News commentator Sean Hannity reacted to the tentative congressional deal saying: "Any Republican that supports this garbage compromise, you will have to explain."

Under the agreement, which must be fleshed out by congressional staff experts, Democrats gave up on a demand they floated on Friday night to lower a cap on immigrant detention beds. They had complained that the Trump administration was increasing detention capacity as a way of speeding up deportations of illegal immigrants.

Democratic Representative Nita Lowey said on Monday night:"I hope by Wednesday we'll have a finished product." Ms Lowey said she had been in touch with House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who she said "has confidence I have made the right decision".

Mr Trump agreed to reopen the government last month for three weeks to give congressional negotiators time to find a compromise on government funding for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends on Sept 30, to avert another shutdown.

The lawmakers leading the negotiations, who met privately on Monday, said they wanted the legislation to pass the House of Representatives and Senate and get Mr Trump's signature by Friday. - REUTERS

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