The Democrats’ ultimate goal is to cut the overall number of detention beds, including those occupied by asylum seekers and people caught at the border, from its current level of around 49,000 to 34,000, the number funded during the Obama administration, Democratic aides said. That, they say, would end sweeps and roundups, and force ICE to focus on pursuing hardened criminals.
Last year, the Trump administration requested funding for 52,000.
With their number, Democrats say they can seize the initiative on immigration from a president who has staked his political fortunes on the issue.
“We started at zero on the wall, and we compromised a lot after that, and we are now asking them to change, too,” said Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard, Democrat of California and a member of the 17-member House and Senate conference committee tasked with hammering out a compromise.
Mr. Trump was catching on. When Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama and the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, presented him with the Democrats’ demand, he rejected it quickly, according to two people briefed on the exchange.
“These are people coming into our country that we are holding and we don’t want in our country,” the president told reporters at the White House late Monday. “That’s why they don’t want to give us what we call ‘the beds.’ It’s much more complicated than beds, but we call them from ‘the beds.’”
In private, Republicans responded with a plan that would exempt many detained immigrants from the cap, including those people either charged with or convicted of crimes, including misdemeanor drug offenses and violent felonies. That, in turn, was rejected by Democrats.
“You have ICE agents picking up mothers and fathers and children in their own neighborhoods. That’s why the beds issue is so much more important than the wall,” said Ms. Roybal-Allard, whose Los Angeles-area district is 85 percent Hispanic, the highest percentage of any district in the country.