President Trump raised the possibility of a government shutdown ahead of a meeting with Democrats for a second consecutive week on Wednesday, even as tensions on Capitol Hill appeared to diminish after hard-line House conservatives backed off plans to oppose a short-term stopgap.
"It could happen," Trump said about a shutdown before a Cabinet meeting, pointing to Democratic demands on immigration policy. "The Democrats are really looking at something that is very dangerous for our country."
"They want to have illegal immigrants pouring into our country, bringing with them crime, tremendous amounts of crime," he added. "We don't want to have that. We want to have a great, beautiful, crime-free country."
Top congressional leaders from both parties are set to meet with the president Thursday at the White House as they seek a deal on lifting spending caps that would allow more funding for the military and nondefense programs. Democrats are also expected to bring up a potential deal on immigration that would include protections for at least 790,000 "dreamers," immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children.
Plans for a meeting between the president and leading Democrats scheduled for last week fell apart after Trump tweeted "I don't see a deal" hours beforehand.
The issue then, as now, was immigration. "Problem is they want illegal immigrants flooding into our Country unchecked, are weak on Crime and want to substantially RAISE Taxes," Trump wrote on Nov. 28.
Responding to Trump's comment Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not indicate Democrats would be backing out of Thursday's meeting.
"President Trump is the only person talking about a government shutdown," she said in a statement. "Democrats are hopeful the President will be open to an agreement to address the urgent needs of the American people and keep government open."
This week, the bigger issue for Republicans seeking to avoid a shutdown has been fellow Republicans.
Leaders of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus emerged from meetings Wednesday morning with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) saying they had not decided whether the group's three dozen members would back the two-week stopgap favored by the GOP leaders.
But they said they had backed off pushing for a longer-term spending bill and were instead focused on setting up a more advantageous fight with Democrats shortly before Christmas.
By the end of the day, both House leaders and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the Freedom Caucus chairman, predicted Republicans would be able to pass the stopgap Thursday before lawmakers leave town for the weekend.
"No one wants a shutdown, including Freedom Caucus members," Meadows said.
The Senate, meanwhile, is expected to take the House bill and pass it quickly Thursday or Friday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made a trip across the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, meeting in McCarthy's office with several House members. Two aides familiar with the meeting but not authorized to discuss it publicly said the lawmakers discussed the legislative agenda for weeks ahead.
One attendee — Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee — said House members posed "very pointed questions" to McConnell on whether he would resist Democratic demands to attach unrelated measures to the pre-holiday spending bill.
"Good questions, weak answers," Walker said of the exchange.
After a months-long detente during which they worked alongside House leaders to advance Republican health-care and tax bills, conservatives have reasserted their presence this week as Friday's shutdown deadline looms.
They want GOP leaders to take a firmer stance in negotiations with Democrats — including opposing efforts to link an increase in defense spending, supported by most Republicans, to an increase in nondefense spending, favored by Democrats.
"They know that Republicans want to fund the military. Democrats know that," Meadows said. "And so what they do is they hold that hostage in trying to get things that are not in the best interest of the American taxpayer, and so it is truly trying to have a real plan to break that."
Walker said conservatives have won assurances from House leaders that they will pursue a spending bill later this month that will provide long-term funding for the military while setting an early 2018 deadline for other parts of the government — allowing Republicans to pursue partisan priorities for domestic spending, such as changes to entitlement programs.
But none of the promises are able to change the reality of legislative math: Republicans need at least eight Senate Democrats to pass any spending bill. GOP leaders have pursued a similar tactics in the past, only to end up striking deadline deals with Democrats in the end.
Meadows and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a fellow Freedom Caucus leader, said they are seeking to make it as difficult as possible for Democrats to oppose spending bills that hike spending on the military but not on other domestic programs.
Democrats have the ability to demand changes in the spending bills because Republicans do not have enough Senate votes to block a Democratic filibuster in that chamber. And in the House, conservative Republicans have tended to oppose spending bills in recent years, forcing GOP leaders to solicit Democratic votes to keep government operating.
The drama comes as House and Senate negotiators are seeking to finalize a Republican tax overhaul that would represent a crowning legislative achievement for the GOP in a year otherwise devoid of them. Versions of the tax bill have passed the House and Senate and now must be reconciled.
Conservative leaders say they are concerned that GOP leaders will use the hoopla surrounding a final vote on the tax bill to obscure a separate vote on spending legislation that could include numerous Democratic priorities.