House Democrats vote to deny Trump wall money, defying veto threat

The US House of Representatives has approved legislation to end a partial government shutdown on Jan 3, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

​WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - The newly Democrat-controlled House of Representatives has passed a package of Bills that would reopen the federal government without paying for US President Donald Trump's border wall, drawing a swift veto threat from the White House and leaving the partial shutdown no closer to getting resolved.

But two Senate Republicans who are up for reelection in 2020 broke with Mr Trump and party leaders on their shutdown strategy on Thursday (Jan 4), saying it was time to end the impasse even if Democrats won't give Mr Trump the more than US$5 billion (S$6.8 billion) in border funding he is demanding.

The comments from Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine - the only Senate Republicans running for reelection in states Mr Trump lost - pointed to cracks within the GOP that could grow as the shutdown nears the two-week mark. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, reiterated on Thursday that the Senate will only take up government spending legislation that Mr Trump supports.

Mr McConnell's stance prompted angry attacks Thursday from new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats, who insisted they were trying to give Republicans a way out of the standoff by passing two pieces of legislation: one a package of six spending Bills that were negotiated on a bipartisan basis in the Senate and would reopen nearly all the federal agencies that have been shuttered since Dec 22, and the second a stopgap spending Bill through Feb 8 covering only the Department of Homeland Security.

The six-Bill package passed the House 241-190 Thursday night, and the short-term Homeland Security spending Bill passed 239-192. A handful of Republicans broke ranks on each measure to vote "yes" with the Democrats.

The House strategy could allow Senate Republicans to pass legislation that would reopen most of the government while setting aside the debate over the border wall. But thus far, because of Mr Trump's opposition, party leaders have refused.

"What we're asking the Republicans in the Senate to do is to take 'yes' for an answer. We are sending them back exactly, word for word, what they have passed," Ms Pelosi said. "Why would they not do that? Is it because the president won't sign it? Did they not hear about the coequal branch of government, and that we the Congress send the president legislation and he can choose to sign or not?"

Mr McConnell restated the stance he has adopted since the Senate unanimously passed a short-term spending Bill last month without additional wall funding - only to watch as Mr Trump turned against it the very next morning amid a conservative backlash.

"I've made it clear on several occasions, and let me say it again: The Senate will not take up any proposal that does not have a real chance of passing this chamber and getting a presidential signature. Let's not waste the time," Mr McConnell said.

As the impasse dragged on, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, said for the first time that the stalemate could continue for "months and months."

A funding lapse of that length would have compounding consequences for the government's ability to provide promised services, and for the approximately 800,000 federal workers who are either furloughed at home or working without any guarantee of getting paid.

Comments from the most politically vulnerable members of Mr McConnell's caucus suggested discomfort with the majority leader's approach, and a desire for a quick resolution to the shutdown.

"I think we should pass a continuing resolution to get the government back open. The Senate has done it last Congress, we should do it again today," Mr Gardner said, as the 116th Congress got underway with pomp and ceremony on both sides of the Capitol.

Nevertheless, Mr Trump showed no sign Thursday that he was going to budge. A veto threat issued by the White House against the House bills read: "The Administration is committed to working with the Congress to reopen lapsed agencies, but cannot accept legislation that provides unnecessary funding for wasteful programs while ignoring the Nation's urgent border security needs."

Top congressional leaders plan to meet with Trump at the White House later Friday, in a repeat of a meeting they had on Wednesday. But so far there are no signs of a breakthrough or any movement. "We're not doing a wall. Does anyone have any doubt that we're not doing a wall?" Ms Pelosi said Thursday.

The shutdown has lasted 13 days without any signs of compromise or earnest negotiations, with Democrats largely unifying and a number of Republicans flummoxed over Trump's strategy.

Many of the federal workers impacted will miss their first paycheck beginning next week. Multiple national parks and museums have closed, and the impact is expected to become even more severe in the coming weeks. The food stamp program that millions of Americans rely on may grind to a halt beginning in February, and the Internal Revenue Service will not be able to process refunds.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised to erect a wall along the Mexico border and have Mexico pay for it. He said terrorists, drugs and criminals were coming to the United States through Mexico and needed to be stopped.

Since taking over in 2017, Trump has continued to assert that a wall is needed but has backed away from insisting that Mexico pay for it. He has instead said the money should come from US taxpayers, an idea that has divided Republicans.

Though some Senate Republicans broke with Trump and leadership Thursday, others cautioned about what would happen if he caved on his signature promise. "If he gives in now, that's the end of 2019 in terms of him being an effective president," said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham on Wednesday during an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News. "That's probably the end of his presidency. Donald Trump has made a promise to the American people: He's going to secure our border."

The shutdown is affecting about a quarter of the portion of the federal government funded by Congress, since the Pentagon and major agencies including the Department of Health and Human Services have already been funded through Sept 30 by spending bills passed by Congress earlier in the year.

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