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Midnight US shutdown almost certain as senator holds up spending bill
[WASHINGTON] The US government on Thursday slid toward an all-but-certain shutdown as congressional leaders appeared unable to overcome a stumbling block in efforts to pass a stopgap spending bill before midnight.
With just hours to go before current federal funding expires, the White House urged federal agencies to prepare for a shutdown of operations.
The White House's Office of Management and Budget "is currently preparing for a lapse in appropriations," an OMB official said on condition of anonymity, calling on lawmakers to get the measure to President Donald Trump's desk "without delay."
With each passing hour, that result was looking less and less likely.
The bill, which extends government funding for six weeks, raises the federal debt ceiling and increases federal spending limits for the next two years, would break the cycle of government funding crises in time for what is set to be a bruising campaign for November's mid-term elections.
Despite simmering rebellion among Republicans and Democrats over the bipartisan budget agreement struck on Wednesday to end the logjam, the Senate was heading towards a vote on the measure when a conservative lawmaker blocked quick action on the bill.
Moving legislation swiftly through the upper chamber of Congress requires consent by all 100 members, but Republican Senator Rand Paul threw a wrench in the works by objecting to a rapid vote.
Mr Paul took the floor to blast the increase in federal spending limits and said he would not allow the Republican-controlled Senate to act quickly.
"I can't in all good honesty and all good faith just look the other way because my party is now complicit in the deficits," Mr Paul said.
"If you're against president (Barack) Obama's deficits, but you're for the Republican deficits, isn't that the very definition of hypocrisy?" he boomed, adding that he wants his fellow lawmakers "to feel uncomfortable" over the impasse.
Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer warned that time was running short.
"We're in risky territory here," he said.
Should Mr Paul stand his ground, Senate rules dictate that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can declare a new session at midnight at the earliest, then hold a procedural vote on the spending bill one hour into the new day. A final vote would follow.
A McConnell lieutenant, Senator John Cornyn, took the floor late Thursday, and in a tense exchange asked for consent to move the vote up to 10.30pm, then 11.00, 11.30 and midnight, in an effort to avoid or at least minimise the shutdown.
Mr Paul objected to each request, all but assuring non-essential government operations will halt early Friday.
"I don't know why we are basically burning time here," an exasperated Mr Cornyn said. "We are in an emergency situation."
If passed, the bill would then head to the House of Representatives. If it clears Congress and gets signed by Trump, who supports the measure, it could result in only a brief closure of government operations.
But the deal's fate in the House is far from certain.
Fiscal conservatives in the lower chamber may join with Mr Paul in balking at adding billions of dollars to the national debt two months after passing a US$1.5 trillion tax cut package.
And liberal stalwarts including top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi were also in revolt, because the deal does nothing to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation.
House Speaker Paul Ryan appeared to shrug off concerns that several Republicans as well as Democrats might oppose the deal.
"I think we're going to be fine," he said in a radio interview about the looming vote.
US$300 BILLION MORE
The temporary spending bill under consideration incorporates the major budget deal reached between Senate leaders on both sides of the political aisle.
That agreement includes a US$300 billion increase to both military and non-military spending limits for this year and 2019, and raises the debt until March 1 next year.
It also provides a massive US$90 billion disaster relief package and funding to address the nationwide opioid abuse crisis.
Democrats have sought to link the federal funding debate to a permanent solution for hundreds of thousands of "Dreamer" immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.
Dreamers were shielded from deportation under the Obama-era programme called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
But Mr Trump ended the programme last September, setting March 5 as a deadline for resolving the issue.
Facing tightening numbers for Thursday's vote, Mr Ryan said he was prepared to address the immigration issue head on.
"I know that there is a real commitment to solving the DACA challenge in both political parties. That's a commitment that I share," Mr Ryan told reporters.
The White House's current proposal - one that would put 1.8 million immigrants on a path to citizenship, but also boost border security, and dramatically curtail legal immigration - has been panned by Democrats.
Several bipartisan efforts have stalled.