With barely two days before the US government runs out of money, and President Donald Trump feuding with Democrats over immigration, Republican congressional leaders scrambled Wednesday to avoid an embarrassing federal shutdown.
A bipartisan deal on immigration that would shield some 700,000 people from deportation lay in tatters after the president's reported use of vulgar language during a tense White House meeting last week set off clashes with key Democrats.
The opposition party has been pushing for any budget agreement to include a deal on the future of the so-called "Dreamers" who were brought to the country illegally as children and are set to lose their protected status on March 5.
While some Senate Democrats have threatened to vote against a budget bill that does not include an immigration deal, Trump said he believed such an agreement remained possible.
But time was running out, and a government shutdown "could happen," Trump told Reuters, adding that there was still a possibility of him signing a short-term spending measure this week to avoid a shutdown.
With a Friday midnight deadline looming, Republicans are angling for a temporary bill that extends federal spending into mid-February, re-authorizes funding for a threatened children's health insurance scheme for six years, and scraps some health-related taxes -- with no immigration-linked measure included.
"I think cool heads hopefully will prevail on this," House Speaker Paul Ryan told a press conference.
Rank-and-file Republican congressman Jason Lewis made a more direct pledge.
"We're not going to shut the government down," he said.
But despite a swirl of meetings between lawmakers and White House officials Wednesday, Congress appeared no closer to a resolution.
"Nothing was agreed on," Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, an architect of a bipartisan plan rejected by Trump last week, said after huddling with White house chief of staff John Kelly, who met hours earlier with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Even a Republican stop-gap measure could face opposition from far-right conservatives.
Ryan will have to win over key skeptics to get the temporary spending bill passed, particularly if Democrats unanimously oppose a measure with no agreement to protect the "Dreamers."
Republican leadership is well aware of how poorly a shutdown will reflect on their party, which controls both houses of Congress as well as the White House and is headed for crucial mid-term elections in November.
- Trump reversal -
Frustrations over the immigration deadlock boiled over in New York, where three people were arrested protesting immigration policy, and in Washington, where police said 82 people were arrested in a Senate office building during a sit-in urging protection of immigrants.
"I am undocumented, I am a DACA holder, and each day that passes by a lot of young undocumented lose their DACA and are put at risk," said a 23-year-old college student who identified herself as Dennise, one of those arrested in New York.
Dennise said she arrived from Mexico when she was five years old.
Publicly Republicans have expressed support for resolving the immigration issue before the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program implemented during the Obama administration but rescinded by Trump, expires in March.
But in a moment of bluntness, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell addressed the lack of clarity from the White House.
"I'm looking for something that President Trump supports, and he's not yet indicated what measure he's willing to sign," McConnell told reporters.
"As soon as we figure out what he is for, then I would be convinced that we were not just spinning our wheels."
Last week Trump told lawmakers he would sign an immigration reform bill as soon as negotiators concluded a deal and it passed Congress.
Days later he reversed course, rejecting a bipartisan plan submitted to him at a White House meeting during which he also reportedly lashed out at immigration from "shithole" countries.
- 'End the madness' -
The plan, crafted by three Democrats and three Republicans and in the works for months, aims to address the four issues insisted on by Trump: a reasonable DACA fix; limits to the green card visa lottery and the family reunification program also known as "chain migration;" and improved border security.
With McConnell reluctant to put forward a deal previously rejected by Trump, it is all but dead.
But Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the bipartisan deal's Republican authors, said it would pass if Trump gets behind it.
"I think there's a growing desire by Republicans and certainly Democrats to sort of end the madness," Graham told reporters, noting that Democratic negotiators even agreed to fund elements of Trump's planned border wall.
To that end, Senator Susan Collins, a Republican moderate, announced her support of the plan by the so-called Gang of Six.
Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said his party was working overtime to avert a shutdown.
"If there is one, it'll fall on the Republicans' backs, plain and simple," he said.
© Agence France-Presse