Trump signs spending bill, averting government shutdown

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President Donald Trump on Friday (March 23) signed a US$1.3 trillion (S$1.7 trillion) compromise federal spending bill despite being "unhappy" with many of its provisions - thereby averting what would have been the third government shutdown of 2018.

Trump said he signed the measure that had passed the Senate just hours earlier "as a matter of national security," because it dramatically expands military funding and provides for "the largest pay increase" for US troops in over a decade.

"There are a lot of things I'm unhappy about in this bill. There are a lot of things we shouldn't have had in this bill but we were, in a sense, forced (to have) if we want to build our military," he said in a hastily arranged media event at the White House.

"My highest duty is to keep America safe."

Trump alarmed many in Washington early Friday by tweeting he was "considering a VETO" of the bill, even though it had easily passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Thursday (March 21)- and White House aides said he would sign it.

The apparent early-morning reversal of his support provoked a fresh sense of chaos in the administration, with White House officials scrambling to assure that the president would indeed sign on.

By putting pen to paper, the president brings an end to months of intense negotiations and political posturing over the federal spending in 2018.

Five times since the fiscal year began on Oct 1, Congress has been forced to pass stopgap funding legislation to keep the government open after lawmakers failed to reach agreement on spending. Twice this calendar year, the government was allowed to slip into shutdown.

Despite signing the measure, Trump did not hide his disgust about the closed-door process and the forced rapid-fire votes of approval ahead of a shutdown deadline.

The 71-year-old president warned Congress he would "never sign another bill like this again".

"I'm not going to do it again. Nobody read it. It's only hours old," he said, with a copy of the 2,232-page spending bill piled on a desk next to him.

Border security and the 'Dreamers' 

The centerpiece was a big increase in US defense spending to US$700 billion, up US$61 billion, and a 10 per cent hike in domestic spending, which would rise to US$591 billion.

The bill provided US$1.6 billion for border security and construction or repair of nearly 100 miles (160 kilometers) of border fencing, but that was far less than Trump had been seeking.

It leaves intact funding for women's health provider Planned Parenthood, a target of relentless criticism from pro-life Republicans.

But in a major blow to Democrats, it set aside the issue of the so-called "Dreamers," who are in legal limbo following the Trump administration's repeal of Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy instituted by former president Barack Obama that protected them from deportation.

DACA expired on March 5, but the issue is being fought in the courts. Attempts at a legislative fix collapsed in a previous round of negotiations to avert a government shutdown.

"We wanted to include DACA. We wanted to have them in this bill. 800,000 people. And actually, it could even be more. And we wanted to include DACA in this bill. The Democrats would not do it. They would not do it," he said.

'Self-inflicted chaos' 

Shortly before Trump addressed the media, several lawmakers called on him to not trigger a shutdown.

Trump "needs to drop his wildly reckless veto threats" and sign the bill, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said.

"Americans deserve leadership from the White House, not more self-inflicted chaos." Some conservative Republicans welcomed the move, saying the process was flawed from the start.

The near flip-flop on the spending bill caps yet another week of high drama at a White House that seems to lurch from crisis to crisis.

This week, the former reality TV star replaced his national security advisor, launched a new trade fight with China, and needled investigators probing Russia election meddling.

At the same time, Trump faces an almost unprecedented number of scandals from a defamation lawsuit, to allegations of two extramarital affairs.