22 days and counting: Government shutdown becomes longest in US history

About 800,000 federal workers missed their pay for the first time on Friday – at least some receiving pay stubs for US$0.00 – as unions sued the government for requiring their members to work without pay.
About 800,000 federal workers missed their pay for the first time on Friday – at least some receiving pay stubs for US$0.00 – as unions sued the government for requiring their members to work without pay.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The partial US government shutdown sparked by a stand-off over funding for US President Donald Trump's border wall project became the longest in the country's history on Saturday (Jan 12), entering its 22nd day.

The shutdown - which began on Dec 22 - surpassed the previous record of 21 days, set in 1996 when president Bill Clinton was in office.

Negotiations are at a standstill and no more talks are scheduled for the weekend or early next week. The White House scuttled efforts to reach a deal on Capitol Hill on Thursday (Jan 10), and Trump’s budget team is drawing up contingency plans for a shutdown that extends through the end of February, according to an administration official. 

About 800,000 federal workers missed their pay for the first time on Friday –at least some receiving pay stubs for US$0.00 – as unions sued the government for requiring their members to work without pay.

At least one airport planned to close a concourse as absences rose among security screeners who haven’t received their wages.

Trump said on Friday that he planned to sign a Bill guaranteeing that federal employees will be given back pay once the government reopens. 

Democrats and the President remain at loggerheads, with party leaders saying they won’t agree to fund any kind of wall or barrier and Trump insisting he won’t agree to reopen the government until the wall is funded. 

Some Trump allies have been encouraging him to declare a national emergency and redirect other funds to begin building the wall. But Trump said on Friday that he wasn’t rushing to use that option, which would be challenged in court and, if not overturned, establish a precedent expanding the power of future Democratic presidents.

“I’m not going to do it so fast because this is something Congress should do,” Trump told reporters during a meeting with law enforcement officials who favour the wall. 

The shutdown on Saturday surpassed the 1995-1996 funding lapse, when Bill Clinton was president and Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House. That ended when congressional Republicans agreed to a short-term funding Bill for closed agencies that was later extended. 

 
 
 

The last meeting between Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican leaders ended with Trump walking out. After Pelosi said she wouldn’t provide funding for a border wall even if Trump reopened the government, the President said “bye bye” and left the room. 

Since that meeting on Wednesday, both sides have blamed each other, with the White House arguing Democrats are refusing to negotiate, and Democrats accusing Trump of forcing government workers to go unpaid as leverage to get US$5.7 billion for a wall that voters don’t want. 

An attempt on Thursday by moderate Republican senators to broker a deal that would have traded immigration protections for undocumented “Dreamers” brought to the US as children in return for wall money collapsed after Vice-President Mike Pence rejected it. 

One close Trump ally, Republican Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, said on Friday that he believed Trump was getting closer to declaring an emergency.

“I think we’re talking days, not weeks,” the chairman and founding member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus said. “I think he’s got to do it.”

After meeting Trump on Friday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said it was clear to him and the President that “Democrats don’t want to make a deal and will never support border wall/barriers”.

The only option, Graham tweeted, was for Trump to “declare a national emergency NOW”.

House Democrats as well as a smattering of Republicans voted this week in favour of Bills to reopen portions of the government. But the GOP-controlled Senate has refused to consider the measures unless Trump agrees to sign them.

The White House has said the President will veto the funding legislation unless his demands for a border wall are met.