WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump and Congress leaders agreed on Friday (Jan 25) to reopen the government for three weeks while they negotiated his demands for border wall funding, ending the political deadlock that had led to America’s longest partial government shutdown and increasingly strained its national infrastructure and economy.
The short-term deal, which will last until Feb 15, was reached in spite of Mr Trump’s previous insistence that he would not sign any deal that did not including funding for the central promise of his campaign, a US$5.7 billion (S$7.7 billion) wall at the US-Mexico border.
Should negotiations fail once more, the President hinted that he might resort to declaring a national emergency to bypass Congress for wall funding, or let the government shut down again.
“We really have no choice but to build a powerful wall or steel barrier. If we don’t get a fair deal from Congress, the government will either shut down on Feb 15 again, or I will use the powers afforded to me under the laws and the Constitution of the United States to address this emergency,” he said.
Mr Trump’s announcement at the White House Rose Garden brought temporary relief to 800,000 federal employees who had been put on leave or made to work without pay for the past five weeks. They will receive their back pay “as soon as possible”, he said.
The Senate passed the Bill that afternoon, with the deal expected to land on Mr Trump’s desk for him to sign the same day.
The news came on a day of airport chaos on the East Coast as flights were delayed or halted due to a shortage of air traffic controllers, who have reported facing financial hardships over being forced to work without pay. At least 14,000 Internal Revenue Service employees who were recalled to work ahead of the start of tax season next week had not turned up, the Washington Post reported.
As the shutdown wore on, more Americans blamed Mr Trump than the Democrats, with a fresh Post-ABC poll out on Friday showing 53 per cent holding Trump and Republicans responsible compared to the 34 per cent who blamed the Democrats.
The Democrats all but claimed victory on Friday, with Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer telling reporters at a press conference that the agreement ultimately endorsed his party’s position.
He said: “Today, the President will sign the Bill to reopen the government along the outlines of what we have proposed, and hopefully that means a lesson learned for the White House and for many of our Republican colleagues.
“Shutting down the government over a policy difference is self-defeating. It accomplishes nothing but pain and suffering for the country, and incurs an enormous political cost to the party shutting it down. We cannot, cannot ever hold American workers hostage again.”
Going forward, Congress and the President would try and find agreement on border security, said Mr Schumer, who was flanked by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Democrats are firmly against the wall. But we agree on many things, such as the need for drug inspection technology, humanitarian aid, and strengthening security at our ports of entry, and that bodes well for finding an eventual agreement,” he said.
Right-wing conservatives were not happy, particularly those who took hardline stances against illegal immigration. Former Trump supporter turned vocal critic Ann Coulter lashed out at the President, calling him “the biggest wimp ever” on Twitter.
Federal employees, many of whom missed their second pay cheque in a row on Friday, were relieved at the breakthrough, though for many the damage had been done.
National Federation of Federal Employees Randy Erwin said in a statement that while he was relieved that a temporary agreement was in the works, the shutdown had caused “irreparable harm to working families across the country and to the American economy as a whole”.
“Federal workers and others have resorted to selling their possessions, and many have defaulted on loans and mortgages in order to afford heat, medicine, and food,” he said.
S&P US chief economist Beth Ann Bovino estimated that the shutdown had cost US$1.2 billion in gross domestic product growth per week, and had already cost the economy more than the US$5.7 billion the White House had requested for a border wall.
The figure included direct costs like lost productivity for government workers and contract workers, and indirect costs borne by outside businesses tied to government activity, such as airlines, hotels, and restaurants at national parks.
“Their bread and butter is dependent on people visiting national parks and museums. When they're closed, those businesses lose business,” she said at a Friday morning US Chamber of Commerce event focusing on the economic impact of the government shutdown.
Said US Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive Tom Donohue: “Federal workers are expected to receive back pay and they should, but for everyone else, the money they lose they lose forever. No cheque from Uncle Sam will cover their loss, no act of Congress will bring their business back.”