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United States

US government partially shuts after Congress and President Trump fail to reach a deal

  • Trump has dug in on his demand for US$5 billion to construct a wall on the US border with Mexico. Democrats are staunchly opposed
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 December, 2018, 9:10pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 December, 2018, 9:10pm

The US government began a Christmas shutdown early on Saturday, after Congress adjourned without passing a federal spending bill or addressing President Donald Trump’s demand for money to build a border wall.

Operations for several key agencies ceased at 12:01am local time, despite last-ditch talks that continued on Capitol Hill between White House officials and congressional leaders in both parties.

While most critical security functions remain operational, the effects of the budget wrangling and uncertainty have cast an air of chaos over the capital, which is also reeling from Defence Secretary James Mattis’s resignation announcement on Thursday.

The uncertainty pushed Wall Street into a third straight rout on Friday, to end its worst week since late 2008 at the start of the global financial crisis.

“President Trump threw a temper tantrum and convinced House Republicans to push our nation into a destructive Trump Shutdown,” Chuck Schumer, the top opposition Democrat in the Senate, and his House counterpart, fellow Democrat Nancy Pelosi, said in a joint statement.

Trump has dug in on his demand for US$5 billion for construction of a wall to curb illegal immigration on the US border with Mexico. Democrats are staunchly opposed, and the absence of an elusive deal means federal funds for dozens of agencies lapsed at midnight on Friday.

The House of Representatives and the Senate are due back in session at noon on Saturday but it remains unclear how long the shutdown – the third this year – will last.

Trump expressed hope late on Friday night that it “will not last long,” after earlier saying he was ready for just that.

His own Republican Party still controls both the House and Senate, but that will change in January when the House comes under Democratic control.

For now, 800,000 federal employees will be either furloughed or forced to work without pay in the run-up to the Christmas holiday.

“The failure to fund the government’s operation is shameful, unacceptable, and a completely avoidable waste of taxpayer dollars,” David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement.

“This is a dereliction of duty by Congress and the president.”

But the prospect of a large portion of government workers going without paychecks was not enough to spur lawmakers or the president to action.

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The House of Representatives adjourned just before 7:00pm Friday, with no moves taken to avert a shutdown, and the Senate closed up shop an hour later.

About three-quarters of the government, including the military and the Department of Health and Human Services, is fully funded until the end of September 2019, leaving 25 per cent unfunded as of Saturday.

Most Nasa employees will be sent home, as will Commerce Department workers and many at the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Agriculture and State.

National parks will remain open, but most park staff will stay home while Washington is unable to accomplish one of its most basic – keeping the government up and running.

“It’s up to the Democrats whether or not we have a shutdown tonight,” Trump said earlier on Friday, blaming his political opponents for the crisis.

“I hope we don’t,” the president added, but “we’re totally prepared for a very long shutdown.”

Senators told reporters that congressional leaders from both parties were negotiating behind the scenes with White House officials including Vice-President Mike Pence, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and incoming chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

The power trio shuttled from one side of the Capitol to the other, seeking a breakthrough with Republicans and Democrats. It did not come on Friday.

Should they eventually strike a deal, it could swiftly clear Congress and reach the president’s desk, said Senate Republican Bob Corker.

One focus of discussion was the US$1.6 billion in border security funding that was a part of pending Senate legislation, according to number two Senate Republican John Cornyn. But conservatives in the House would likely balk at that figure.

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“There’s no agreement,” congressman Mark Meadows, chairman of the House Freedom Caucus of ultra-conservatives, told reporters as he left a closed-door meeting on the Capitol’s Senate side.

“There’s a whole lot of numbers being thrown around,” but a maximum US$1.6 billion for border security “is not acceptable.”

Trump reversed course on Thursday and rejected a measure that had unanimously passed the Senate and was under House consideration.

It would have extended government funding until February 8, but contained no money for a border wall, a pet project Trump has fought for since his presidential campaign.

Democrats painted Trump as the Grinch who stole the year-end deal.

With lawmakers like Meadows and prominent conservative commentators demanding that the president stick to his campaign promises, Trump would not budge on his wall.

The House swiftly passed a bill that fulfilled the president’s demands. It included US$5.7 billion in wall funding, and US$7.8 billion in disaster relief. But it stalled at the first hurdle in the Senate.

Trump was scheduled to fly to Florida on Friday for his Christmas break, but he postponed the trip.