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US Democrats maneuver to end shutdown, without Trump wall money

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Democrats in the House of Representatives are planning a vote on Thursday on a funding package to end the 10-day-old partial US government shutdown without providing the US$5 billion President Donald Trump has demanded for a US-Mexico border wall.

[WASHINGTON] Democrats in the House of Representatives are planning a vote on Thursday on a funding package to end the 10-day-old partial US government shutdown without providing the US$5 billion President Donald Trump has demanded for a US-Mexico border wall.

The planned vote sets up a Democratic showdown with Mr Trump's fellow Republicans on an issue dear to the president on the first day of divided government in Washington since he took office in January 2017 with a Congress led by his own party. Democrats will formally take control of the House from the Republicans on Thursday after winning a majority of seats in November's congressional elections.

The two-part package will include a bill to keep funding for the Department of Homeland Security at current levels through Feb 8 with US$1.3 billion for border security, as well as measures to fund other shuttered agencies through the Sept 30 end of the current fiscal year, Democratic congressional aides said on Monday.

If approved in the House, the government funding package would go next to the Republican-led Senate. Its Senate prospects appear unpromising though Trump's unpredictability makes it hard to gauge how the shutdown showdown will play out.

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The Democratic legislation will mark the first major battle pitting the incoming Democratic House majority led by Nancy Pelosi against Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said his chamber will not consider any legislation Mr Trump would not support.

Democrats oppose Mr Trump's demand for wall funding, with Ms Pelosi calling the wall immoral, ineffective and expensive.

Democrats expect their two-pronged funding approach could put Mr Trump and his Republican allies in a tough position. If they reject funding bills for departments unconnected to border security, Republicans could be seen as holding those agencies and their roughly 800,000 affected workers hostage to Mr Trump's wall demand. Those include the Departments of Agriculture, Interior, Transportation, Commerce and Justice.

The homeland security piece of the Democratic package is based on a measure that has already passed the Senate with bipartisan support.

The partial government shutdown, which began on Dec 22 and has idled roughly a quarter of the federal government, was precipitated by Mr Trump's demand, under pressure from conservative commentators, that Congress approve US$5 billion to help fund a wall that was a promise made in his 2016 election campaign, though he said at the time it would be paid for by Mexico.

Mr Trump has called the wall crucial to combating illegal immigration and drug trafficking. The Senate on Dec 21 failed to muster the votes needed to pass Republican-backed House legislation that included Trump's wall funding.

Not a wall

A central issue in finding a resolution could be the definition of what constitutes a wall including the idea of steel slats and other types of barriers versus a concrete structure.

Mr Trump on Twitter criticised Democratic opposition to the wall project, which carries a total estimated price tag of US$23 billion. He also seemed to contradict comments about the administration's position on the wall made by outgoing White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times published on Sunday, Mr Kelly said, "To be honest, it's not a wall."

"The president still says 'wall' - oftentimes frankly he'll say 'barrier' or 'fencing,' now he's tended toward steel slats. But we left a solid concrete wall early on in the administration, when we asked people what they needed and where they needed it," Mr Kelly added.

Mr Trump said in a Twitter post that border security cannot exist "without a strong and powerful Wall."

"An all concrete Wall was NEVER ABANDONED, as has been reported by the media," Mr Trump wrote. "Some areas will be all concrete but the experts at Border Patrol prefer a Wall that is see through (thereby making it possible to see what is happening on both sides). Makes sense to me!"

Some policy analysts were optimistic the shutdown could be near an end.

"We attach high (75 per cent) odds on the White House and new Congress resolving differences to the government shutdown next week," said Charles Gabriel, an analyst at policy research and strategy firm Capital Alpha Partners.

A senior Democratic aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Senate Democrats support the House legislative plan and that Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer has been in constant contact with Ms Pelosi about it.

US Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally on some issues, met with the president on Sunday and told reporters afterward he was optimistic that Republicans, Democrats and Mr Trump could reach a deal to end the shutdown that includes wall funding and legal status for some illegal immigrants.

But Mr Graham said there would never be a government spending deal that did not include money for a wall or other physical barriers on the southern border.

REUTERS