National parks and some landmarks could be affected by the shutdown. (Reuters: Shannon Stapleton)
Racing toward a partial government shutdown, US President Donald Trump appeared stuck in a standoff with Democrats over his demand for billions of dollars in US-Mexico border wall money.
- If a government funding bill fails to pass the Senate, a partial shutdown could begin
- Affected agencies would limit staff to those deemed “essential” to public safety
- Funding for the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and the Agriculture Department are set to expire at 4:00pm Saturday AEDT
The shutdown, scheduled for midnight Friday (4:00pm Saturday AEDT), would disrupt government operations and leave hundreds of thousands of federal workers furloughed or forced to work without pay just days before Christmas.
Mr Trump convened Republican senators for a lengthy meeting at the White House, but it produced no clear path toward passage of a government-funding bill containing billions for wall construction.
The Senate began a procedural vote on the legislation but was stuck in a long holding pattern waiting for the return of senators who had already left town.
“This is our only chance that we’ll ever have, in our opinion, because of the world and the way it breaks out, to get great border security,” Mr Trump said.
Democrats will take control of the House in January, and they oppose major funding for wall construction.
Mr Trump tried to pin the blame on Democrats for the possible shutdown, even though just last week he said he would be “proud” to shut part of the Government in a fight for the wall, which was a major promise of his presidential campaign.
Congress had been on track to fund the Government but lurched when Mr Trump, after a rare lashing from conservative supporters, declared on Thursday he would not sign a bill without the wall billions.
His supporters on the right warned that his “caving” on repeated wall promises could hurt his 2020 re-election chances, and those of other Republicans as well.
“We’re totally prepared for a very long shutdown,” Mr Trump said on Friday.
Embracing his changed terminology, he claimed there is tremendous enthusiasm for border security — “the barrier, wall or steel slats — it’s all the same”.
Senators rush back to Washington
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell returned to Capitol Hill saying politicians “had a good conversation about the way forward. We are going to continue to be talking this afternoon”.
Mr McConnell quickly set in motion a Senate procedural vote on a House Republican package that would give Mr Trump $US5.7 billion for the wall, but it was not expected to pass.
At least one Republican was opposed, saying he would resist wall money without broader immigration reforms, leaving even the procedural vote in doubt.
Senators were being recalled to Washington after having already approved a bipartisan package earlier this week that would continue existing border security funding, at $US1.3 billion, but without new money for Mr Trump’s wall.
Friday’s voting dragged on as senators rushed back to town. Texas senator John Cornyn said he returned to the Lone Star state on Thursday only to get back on an early Friday morning flight to Washington.
Democratic senator Brian Schatz flew all the way home to Hawaii, tweeting that he spent 17 minutes with his family, before returning on the 11-hour flight.
“Wheels down IAD ready to vote no on this stupid wall,” Mr Schatz tweeted Friday, referring to Dulles International Airport outside Washington.
At the White House, senators engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth with the President, but it did not appear to set a strategy for moving forward.
‘The Democrats now own the shutdown!’
The Senate was expected to reject the House measure because Democratic votes are needed and McConnell showed little interest in changing the rules – as Mr Trump proposed – to allow a simple majority for passage.
One possibility was that the Senate might strip the border wall funds out of the package, pass it and send it back to the House. House lawmakers said they were being told to stay in town for more possible votes.
Only a week ago, Mr Trump insisted during a televised meeting at the White House he would take ownership of a shutdown over his border wall. “I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down,” he asserted.
But with the hours dwindling before the midnight deadline, Mr Trump sought to reframe the debate and blame Democrats for the impasse that threatens hundreds of thousands of federal workers on the eve of the end-of-the-year holidays.
“Senator Mitch McConnell should fight for the Wall and Border Security as hard as he fought for anything,” he said.
Later in the morning, not even waiting for a Senate vote, Mr Trump tweeted that “the Democrats now own the shutdown!”
At issue is funding for nine of 15 Cabinet-level departments and dozens of agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Interior, Agriculture, State and Justice, as well as national parks and forests.
Many agencies, including the Pentagon and the departments of Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services, are funded for the year and would continue to operate as usual. The US Postal Service, busy delivering packages for the holiday season, would not be affected because it is an independent agency.
The showdown added to tensions in Washington as politicians also grappled with Mr Trump’s sudden move to pull troops from Syria, which prompted Defence Secretary Jim Mattis to resign and furthered concerns over the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election that Mr Trump won.