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US government shutdown starts as senators keep negotiating

[WASHINGTON] The US government officially entered a partial shutdown early Saturday as Senate leaders struggled to reach a deal to at least temporarily resume funding for federal operations before Americans awoke to a political breakdown.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell held a key procedural vote open past the midnight deadline to pass a spending bill with the chamber well short of the 60 votes needed to advance a House Republican measure to fund the government for another 30 days.

After a day of recriminations and frantic back-and-forth talks, senators milled on the floor of the chamber with the vote still open. Mr McConnell and Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer engaged in shuttle diplomacy, alternating between conferring with their members and each other.

Yet even as the lawmakers continued their 11th hour negotiations, the Trump administration's plan to halt some government operations at least nominally kicked in.

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The White House and federal agencies spent Friday mapping out how to proceed if the deadline passed without an agreement. Some departments revived shutdown plans from the Obama years. The administration wanted as little disruption as possible. For instance, mail will continue to be delivered; airport control towers will be staffed; and the Interior Department hopes to keep the national parks open.

A day spent on phone calls and meetings, including a face-to-face discussion between President Donald Trump and Mr Schumer, briefly raised hopes that a solution was within grasp. But pessimism spread in the Capitol as it was clear no deal had been reached at the White House meeting and the midnight deadline approached.

"I don't think anybody knows what's going to happen next," Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, said earlier Friday, before the vote.

The White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney predicted Republicans and Democrats would strike an agreement before the weekend was out to provide temporary funding for the government that would let federal agencies open on schedule Monday.

"I think there's a deal in the next 24 hours," Mr Mulvaney said on CNN early Friday evening.

If there's not, both sides were ready to place blame.

Mr Schumer on Thursday blamed the standoff on "complete disarray on the Republican side," including conflicting signals from Mr Trump on immigration.

Mr Mulvaney, at a White House briefing, said the administration was "preparing for what we're calling the Schumer Shutdown." White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted out the hashtag #SchumerShutdown.

One potential way out would be significant progress on immigration among congressional Democrats and Republicans and the White House. Members of Trump's administration, including chief of staff John Kelly and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, have been shuttling between meetings at the Capitol where members of both parties have been working on a getting a deal.

Democrats have been demanding that Congress act now to protect the young immigrants who are shielded under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump plans to end on March 5. Republicans want to pair that issue with stronger border security and restrictions on other immigration programs.

The House earlier voted 230-197 largely along party lines to pass a bill that would have continued government financing at current levels until Feb 16. It included a six-year extension of funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program and a delay in implementation of three taxes imposed by the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.

Representative Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania, said there's no mystery about what is needed to resolve the impasse, since these issues had been on the table since September.

"Leadership here is going to have to allow a vote on a bipartisan DACA bill - take the bull by the horns and do it," Mr Dent said, using the acronym for the immigration program at the center of the standoff. "Because we're not going to remove ourselves from this treadmill of continuing resolutions until we have a bipartisan budget agreement. And we will not have a bipartisan budget agreement until there is an agreement on DACA."

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