Partial govt shutdown looms and priorities stack up as US Congress races towards session's end

US President Donald Trump has flirted openly with forcing a government shutdown in a bid to compel Democrats to embrace wall funding.
US President Donald Trump has flirted openly with forcing a government shutdown in a bid to compel Democrats to embrace wall funding.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President Donald Trump and congressional leaders are racing against a deadline next week to avert a partial government shutdown, pushing disputes over the President's border wall and an array of legislation that touches on everything from Saudi Arabia to farm policy into the waning hours of Republican domination of Congress.

The deepest impasse - and the one with the greatest potential to prompt a year-end breakdown - is over Mr Trump's demand for US$5 billion (S$6.8 billion) for a wall on the US border with Mexico. The President has pressed for its inclusion in the final spending package before his party loses its House majority in January, a condition that Democratic leaders have refused to accept.

Mr Trump is set to host Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leaders, at the White House on Tuesday (Dec 11) for a meeting that will test the new dynamic between a President weakened by midterm election losses and empowered Democrats working to define their party for the era of divided government.

Mr Trump has flirted openly with forcing a government shutdown in a bid to compel Democrats to embrace wall funding. But Democrats have rejected such demands, saying they are willing to consider a much lower sum for border security or pass a measure that would essentially postpone the dispute, extending current spending levels for the Department of Homeland Security for a year.

"If President Trump wants to throw a temper tantrum and shut down the government over Christmas over the wall, that's his decision," Mr Schumer said last week. "But there are two sensible options on the table."

Beyond the wall fight and the bare-minimum endeavour of keeping the government fully open, a perennial year-end appetite for legislating has taken hold on Capitol Hill. A Friday deadline to complete business flew by without the faintest public hint of progress, after the death of former president George H. W. Bush prompted a rare moment of bipartisanship that had lawmakers push back the deadline to Dec 21.

That only prolonged what appears to be a season of magical thinking in Washington, where members of one of the least productive Congresses in recent memory seem convinced they can accomplish a variety of lofty goals that have eluded them in the previous two years.

Among the hopes for the next two weeks are completion of a sweeping farm Bill, a vote on a measure to punish Saudi Arabia for the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Bill to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and a criminal justice Bill with bipartisan support.

Lawmakers expect to extend the federal flood insurance programme, overhaul the way Congress deals with sexual harassment in its own offices and potentially even pass major tax and pension changes.

And as calendar days wane, hopes are rising that major legislation will find a home in the must-pass final spending package and sweep through to the President's desk.

"The majority leader's strategy is to pack everything in against the Christmas holidays as closely as he can so that there's minimum fuss, and then try to put together a package that will get the votes to pass, and you just throw everything you can into it and put nothing that you can't into it," said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. "The last gasp of Republican monopoly control. I don't think they want to be a Christmas shutdown. That just sends such an appalling message, so I think that gets solved," he said.

 
 

Aides are tossing around metaphors to describe the means by which other Bills could find their way into the spending package - the last train leaving the station, final ornaments on the Christmas tree, "a big slumgullion of legislation", Mr Whitehouse offered.

Some measures have better chances than others. As momentum appeared to be evaporating last week to pass the criminal justice Bill, it received a lift last Friday when Mr Trump pressured Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader who has resisted scheduling it for a vote, to "Go for it Mitch!"

Senator Ted Cruz, a prominent Republican holdout, also endorsed the measure, bolstering proponents' argument that the Bill has substantial enough support to pass.

Senators are also poised this week to take action on a resolution to cut off US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, a rebuke to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia for the Khashoggi killing and to Mr Trump for failing to hold him responsible for it.

While there is substantial bipartisan support for the move in the Senate, it faces a roadblock in the House, and Mr Trump would likely veto it. And it is not clear whether the measure or other proposals to punish Saudi Arabia - by imposing sanctions or a weapons ban, or condemning the crown prince directly - could be attached to the spending legislation.

"The fewer things we put on the approps Bills, the better chance of passing," Senator Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters last week. "I'd rather deal with appropriations, for the most part, and keep legislation off anywhere I can."

Five out of the 12 annual spending Bills have been passed, leaving seven to be completed by Dec 21, though those are expected to be rolled into one package.

Negotiations over the Homeland Security Bill, the most contentious of the group, have essentially paused as both chambers wait to see the outcome of the Tuesday meeting between Mr Trump, Ms Pelosi and Mr Schumer.