US government shutdown looms as Republicans seek short-term spending deal

The government will shut down at midnight on Jan 19 for the first time since 2013 if Republicans and Democrats cannot come to an agreement. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Chances of a government shutdown grew on Monday (Jan 15) as Republicans concluded that they would be unable to pass a long-term spending bill by the Friday deadline.

GOP leaders are now turning to a short-term funding measure in hopes of keeping agencies open while talks continue, but Democratic leaders say they are unlikely to support any deal that does not protect young illegal immigrants.

Aides to key negotiators from both parties planned to meet on Tuesday in an effort to rekindle budget talks, setting up a Wednesday meeting of the leaders themselves.

If they cannot agree, the government would shut down at midnight Friday for the first time since 2013.

House Republican leaders are scheduled to discuss their plans for a stopgap spending measure with rank-and-file lawmakers on Tuesday evening.

Hopes of a deal to keep the government open have been complicated by lingering mistrust following an Oval Office meeting last week in which, according to several people familiar with the gathering, President Donald Trump used vulgar terms to describe poor countries sending immigrants to the United States.

The meeting was to consider a bipartisan immigration deal to protect the "dreamers" - young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children, including roughly 800,000 enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program Trump has cancelled.

Democratic leaders are demanding protections for the dreamers be part of any spending deal. They have the leverage to do so because Senate Republicans would need at least nine Democratic votes to support any spending deal.

Democrats also want Republicans to match military spending Trump and many GOP lawmakers are seeking with an equal increase in non-defence funding.

"If they need Democratic votes, the overall legislation needs to meet certain Democratic criteria and be reflective of the values of the Democratic caucus and what we believe are the values of the American people," said Representative Joe Crowley, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, in an interview.

There is also no guarantee that House GOP leaders will be able to rally a majority of their members to support a short-term spending measure, which multiple congressional aides and a senior Trump administration official said would likely last through mid-February.

Defence hawks, in particular, are livid at further delaying a planned boost in military funding. That could mean House Republicans would also need Democratic votes to pass a short-term deal - something the minority party may not be inclined to provide this time around.

On Capitol Hill, however, there are hopes that tensions will ease as the shutdown deadline approaches. The government last shut down in October 2013, when Republicans opposed to President Barack Obama's health-care overhaul demanded its defunding. Government offices closed and hundreds of thousands of federal employees were furloughed for two weeks before the GOP relented.

Last week's meeting went off the rails when Trump angrily rejected a tentative deal negotiated among a small bipartisan group of senators - one that did not include any Republicans who support the strong restrictions Trump favours.

That deal would offer dreamers an eventual path to US citizenship in return for border security funding, including some that could be used to construct the US-Mexico border wall Trump campaigned on.

But it did not include other restrictions Trump is seeking, including an end to rules that allow naturalised citizens to sponsor their relatives for legal status in the United States.

At a Thursday meeting to discuss the deal, according to Durbin and multiple other people familiar with the meeting, Trump referred to certain poor nations as "s***hole countries" from which the United States should not accept immigrants.

Two Republican senators who attended the meeting accused Durbin on Sunday of misreporting the remark, and Trump hiself waded back into the controversy Monday, accusing "Dicky Durbin" of having "totally misrepresented what was said" in the meeting.

"Deals can't get made when there is no trust! Durbin blew DACA and is hurting our Military," Trump tweeted on Monday.

Durbin stood by his comments Monday, while fellow Democrats backed him up and said it was Trump who had a credibility problem, adding they had no plans to back off their litany of demands.

GOP aides believe that the group of four deputy leaders from both chambers - the "No. 2's," as they are being called on Capitol Hill, including Durbin, Senator John Cornyn, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer - is more likely to produce a workable immigration accord, which would then unlock an agreement on spending levels and other outstanding issues.

"At the end of the day, if something's going to be produced that can pass both chambers and get signed by the president, it's going to come from this group," said a Republican familiar with the talks but not authorised to comment on them publicly.

But even if the leaders are able to make progress in the coming days, lawmakers and aides say another temporary spending measure - the fourth since the fiscal year began on Oct 1 - will be necessary in order to keep the government open past Friday.

When the Senate returns to work Tuesday, its first official order of business will be a procedural vote on reauthorising the government's authority to conduct foreign surveillance on US soil. Senate GOP leaders are hoping to send the measure to the president's desk with bipartisan support this week.

That leaves the chamber with perhaps only two full legislative days to pass a short-term funding measure, depending on what happens in the House.

"Even if we had a deal, which we don't, there's no time left to draft it," said a senior Senate Republican aide, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly.

There was frustration and uncertainty among some GOP congressional aides and lawmakers Monday with the state of the spending talks.

The discussions appeared to be headed in a positive direction, until the president "dropped a grenade into the middle of everything this weekend," said a second Senate GOP aide, also granted anonymity to speak candidly. The aide voiced uncertainty about how the talks would proceed in the coming days.

There is also annoyance at the prospect of having to pursue yet another stopgap funding bill that would punt the budget talks deeper into the year.

But Republicans moved to pin blame on Democrats for a potential shutdown. "For several years now, Democrats have blasted us for trying to extract policy goals when funding the government, and now they're doing the same thing," said a House GOP aide.

Echoing many other Republican lawmakers, Senator Rand Paul, said in a Monday interview on Fox News Channel that the immigration debate should be resolved separately from the spending talks.

"That's a question: Will the Democrats hold up spending and funding of the government over this issue?" Paul said.

Senior Democratic aides said they would be waiting for cues from Republicans about what to expect next and repeated what they have said for months: Republicans have total control of Washington and should be able to advance short-term spending agreements easily out of the House. In the Senate, they said that Democratic priorities must be met if they expect support for a short-term plan.

Thirty-two Senate Democrats voted against the last short-term spending plan, and progressive and immigrant-rights groups are pressuring the remainder to oppose any must-pass bill that fails to protect dreamers.

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