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United States

US government’s partial shutdown becomes longest ever

  • And no end in sight to row between President Trump and Democrats over wall funding, the cause of the record shutdown
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 January, 2019, 3:29pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 January, 2019, 3:29pm

The US government shutdown that has left 800,000 federal employees without pay amid President Donald Trump’s row with Democrats over building a Mexico border wall entered a record 22nd day on Saturday.

The Democrats’ refusal to approve US$5.7 billion demanded by Trump for the wall project has paralysed Washington, with the president retaliating by refusing to sign off on budgets for some government departments unrelated to the dispute.

As a result, workers including FBI agents, air traffic controllers and museum staff, did not receive their wages on Friday.

The partial shutdown of the government became the longest on record at midnight on Friday when it overtook the 21-day stretch in 1995-1996 under president Bill Clinton.

The missed cheques turned out to be particularly cruel for nearly three dozen employees at an obscure government agency. The division that processes pay cheques for a big chunk of the government workforce mistakenly paid about 30 employees at the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. Within hours, the workers were quickly sent an email asking them not to spend the money.

Trump on Friday backed off a series of previous threats to end the deadlock by declaring a national emergency and tried to get the funds without congressional approval.

“I’m not going to do it so fast,” he said at a White House meeting.

Trump described an emergency declaration as the “easy way out” and said Congress had to step up to the responsibility of approving the US$5.7 billion.

“If they can’t do it … I will declare a national emergency. I have the absolute right,” he insisted.

Until now, Trump had suggested numerous times he was getting closer to taking the decision.

Only minutes earlier, powerful Republican ally Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted after talks with Trump: “Mr. President, Declare a national emergency NOW.”

It was not clear what made Trump change his mind. But he acknowledged in the White House meeting that an attempt to claim emergency powers would probably end up in legal battles going all the way to the Supreme Court.

Both Democrats and Republicans agree the US-Mexican frontier presents major challenges, ranging from the violent Mexican drug trade to the plight of asylum seekers.

For Trump, who visited the Texas border with Mexico on Thursday, the situation amounts to an invasion by criminals that can only be solved by more walls.

“We have a country that’s under siege,” he said.

There is debate about whether illegal immigrants commit more crimes than people born in the US.

More certain is while narcotics do enter the country across remote sections of the border, most are sneaked through heavily-guarded checkpoints in vehicles, the government’s own Drug Enforcement Administration said in 2017.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives and a key figure in opposing Trump’s agenda, said money should be spent in many areas of border security, but not on walls.

“We need to look at the facts,” she said.

But Trump accused the Democrats of only wanting to score points against him with a view to the 2020 presidential elections.

“They think, ‘Gee, we can hurt Trump,’” he said. “The Democrats are just following politics.”

Additional reporting by The Washington Post