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No Christmas miracle expected as US government shutdown looms

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President Donald Trump on Friday gave the clearest signal yet that the US government will partially shut down at midnight, likely leaving hundreds of thousands of federal employees with coal in their Christmas stockings instead of paychecks.

[WASHINGTON] President Donald Trump on Friday gave the clearest signal yet that the US government will partially shut down at midnight, likely leaving hundreds of thousands of federal employees with coal in their Christmas stockings instead of paychecks.

Concern - and frustration - in Washington appeared to escalate as Trump rejected a funding bill that keeps the government fully operational into February and stuck to his demand that it include US$5 billion for constructing a wall on the US-Mexico border.

With a shutdown just hours away, an air of chaos hung over the capital as lawmakers and the president remained at odds over accomplishing a very basic task: keep the government up and running.

Hopes were dwindling that a deal might be struck before dozens of US agencies including the Departments of Agriculture, Homeland Security, Justice, State, and others are forced to cease most operations.

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"It's possible that we'll have a shutdown. I would say the chances are probably very good," Mr Trump declared at the White House.

One week ago, Mr Trump defiantly said he would be "proud" to shutter government over border security.

But on Friday he was blaming his political opponents for the crisis, saying: "Now it's up to the Democrats whether or not we have a shutdown tonight."

"I hope we don't," the president added, but "we're totally prepared for a very long shutdown."

Democrats savaged Mr Trump for reversing course on Thursday and rejecting 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 Mr Trump has fought for since his presidential campaign.

With ultra-conservative lawmakers and media commentators demanding that the president stick to his campaign promises, Mr Trump doubled down on his wall.

STALEMATE 

Democrats have refused to budge.

"President Trump, you will not get your wall. Abandon your shutdown strategy," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, adding that a presidential retreat was the only way to end the stalemate.

Republicans soldiered on, crafting a new measure that would fulfill the president's demands. It includes US$5.7 billion in wall funding, and US$7.8 billion in disaster relief.

The bill passed the House, but with no Democratic support.

Republican leaders brought it to the Senate floor Friday but it stalled at the first hurdle.

A procedural vote was held open for three hours in hopes of moving forward, but several senators had already left Washington for the holidays and had yet to return.

Republicans control 51 seats in the 100-member Senate, but with 60 votes needed to proceed to a final vote, the bill was as good as dead.

Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican Trump critic who is retiring next week, voted against advancing the measure.

"I don't see any reason to proceed to a bill that can't pass," Mr Flake said, according to The Hill.

The sense of turmoil was compounded by a falling stock market, Mr Trump's abrupt decisions to pull out of Syria and reduce the US military presence in Afghanistan, and the shock resignation of Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, seen as a moderating force for an impulsive president

Mr Trump was scheduled to fly to Florida for the Christmas break, but the White House confirmed that he would be delaying his holiday travel - an indication that the administration is preparing for the shutdown decision to go down to the wire.

Capitol Hill has a knack for pulling solutions out of a hat when the hour is late and lawmakers want to head home. But the mood has soured, with several lawmakers now expecting a freeze of government operations.

"I think there will be a shutdown," House Republican Ryan Costello told CNN.

About 380,000 federal employees could be furloughed, while 420,000 more would be forced to work without pay.

Official shutdown preparations were underway, but with many federal workers scheduled to be off Monday and Tuesday for the Christmas holiday, there was broad uncertainty about how and when plans would be carried out.

The US government endured two brief shutdowns in early 2018.

A more crippling shutdown in 2013 lasted 16 days, with about 800,000 federal workers furloughed amid a fight over funding Barack Obama's health care reforms.

AFP