US govt shutdown looms amid Senate fight

The US Capitol building in Washington on Jan 18, 2018.
The US Capitol building in Washington on Jan 18, 2018.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Month-long funding Bill passed in House, but faces obstacles in Senate

WASHINGTON • Legislation to stave off an imminent federal government shutdown has encountered obstacles in the United States Senate, despite the passage of a month-long funding Bill in the House of Representatives.

Without new money, no matter how temporary, scores of federal agencies across the US would be forced to shut, starting from midnight US time yesterday, when existing funds expired.

The Republican-controlled House on Thursday night approved funding until Feb 16 on a mostly partisan vote of 230-197, sending the stopgap Bill to the Senate for consideration as President Donald Trump pushed hard for a measure to sign before yesterday's deadline. However, a mix of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate who oppose the House Bill for varying reasons left the legislation on the verge of defeat.

A bitter fight broke out on the Senate floor shortly after the House passage and was expected to continue yesterday. That fuelled speculation that Washington would either be thrown into shutdown mode or Congress would merely pass a very short spending Bill - possibly for no more than a few days - to give lawmakers more time to negotiate.

Hovering over the government funding fight are November's congressional elections, in which one-third of the 100-member Senate and all 435 House seats are up for grabs as Republicans battle to keep control of both chambers.

Complicating the effort was a demand by Democrats to attach an immigration measure to the funding Bill to protect a large group of young, undocumented immigrants, known as "Dreamers".

  • Why it happens, and what it costs


    A shutdown takes place when Congress and the President fail to sign into law 12 appropriations Bills to continue to provide funding for government operations.

    These Bills determine spending for specific government agencies.

    To avoid a shutdown, members of Congress can give themselves an extension, known as a continuing resolution, which provides for temporary funding.


    It continues until lawmakers reach a funding agreement, which usually takes as little as a week, but could take several.


    The US government has shut down 18 times since 1976.

    Half of those shutdowns have occurred over a weekend.

    The last major shutdown was in 2013 after conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives attempted to use the budget process to delay or defund implementation of Obamacare.


    The 16-day government shutdown in 2013 cost the country US$24 billion in lost economic activity, according to an analysis from ratings agency Standard & Poor's, Fox News reported.


    If history is any guide, a shutdown would not be enough to knock the market off course.

    And investors have already shown they can ignore political risks to focus instead on earnings and economic data to drive shares to record highs.


Mr Trump has meanwhile continued to push to build a wall along the US border with Mexico that many lawmakers do not want as part of any immigration deal. With that as a backdrop, Republican and Democratic leaders were already casting blame on each other for a shutdown that was still not a certainty.

"Senator Schumer, do not shut down the federal government... It is risky. It is reckless. And it is wrong," House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement, referring to Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.

In the Senate, at least about a dozen Democratic votes would be needed to approve the measure, and there was little chance that those would materialise.

The Senate held only a procedural vote on the stopgap Bill late on Thursday night, leaving for yesterday a more consequential vote when Democrats were expected to block the measure.

The late-night showdown capped a long, tense day on Capitol Hill that began with a flurry of tweets from Mr Trump that doubled down on his demands for an expensive border wall and accused Democrats of snubbing the military. Another tweet, however, seemed to upend the Republican strategy for avoiding a shutdown and contradict his administration's stated policy position - suggesting that a children's health programme ought not to be attached to the temporary spending Bill.

Much as he had to do a week ago after Mr Trump tweeted about an intelligence Bill, Mr Ryan got on the phone with the President to clarify matters, and hours later, the White House confirmed that Mr Trump indeed supported the Bill.

The weeks-old stand-off on immigration and spending only grew more charged last week after Mr Trump referred to African nations as "s***hole countries".

By Thursday, talks on those issues had produced little visible progress, and prominent House Democrats were introducing a resolution to censure the President for his words.

It is anything but clear which side would pay the steepest political price if the government does indeed run out of money a year to the day after Mr Trump took office.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2018, with the headline 'US govt shutdown looms amid Senate fight'. Print Edition | Subscribe