Washington careens towards government shutdown with no deal in sight

US President Donald Trump and Congressional Democrats appeared no closer to reaching a government budget deal by December 21 - with Trump still insisting Congress include US$5 billion (S$7 billion) for a border wall between the US and Mexico.
The US Capitol is seen in Washington, DC, on Dec 17, 2018, as the deadline for lawmakers to agree on a new spending deal to avert shutdown on Dec 22 approaches.
The US Capitol is seen in Washington, DC, on Dec 17, 2018, as the deadline for lawmakers to agree on a new spending deal to avert shutdown on Dec 22 approaches.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US lawmakers were scrambling Monday (Dec 17) to avert a partial government shutdown, with Republican and Democratic leaders locked in a stalemate over President Donald Trump's demands for border wall funding.

As Washington barrelled towards a shuttering of key federal agencies in just four days, the White House appeared dug in on Trump's call for Congress to budget US$5 billion (S$6.9 billion) in 2019 to fund a wall on the US-Mexico border that he insists will check illegal immigration.

If no breakthrough is reached, the shutdown would occur over the Christmas holiday - when most lawmakers flee the US Capitol - leaving Washington red-faced at the end of the year.

The closure could potentially spill into early January, when the new Congress - including a Democratically controlled House of Representatives - is sworn in.

Congressional leaders say they are opposed to a shutdown. Democrats are united in their opposition to Trump's US$5 billion ask, saying their intent is to offer no more than US$1.6 billion in border security funding as laid out in bipartisan legislation earlier this month.

On Monday Trump launched a fresh attack on the opposition party and its offer of wall-less border security funding.

"Anytime you hear a Democrat saying that you can have good Boarder (sic) Security without a Wall, write them off as just another politician following the party line," Trump tweeted.

 
 
 

"Time for us to save billions of dollars a year and have, at the same time, far greater safety and control!" White House senior advisor Stephen Miller said the wall - the last sticking point in funding negotiations - remained a top priority.

"We're going to do whatever is necessary to build the border wall to stop this ongoing crisis of illegal immigration," Miller told CBS Sunday talk show "Face the Nation." Asked if that means a shutdown, Miller was firm: "If it comes to it, absolutely."

Not enough votes 

Last week a defiant Trump alarmed Democrats, and some in his Republican Party, when he said he would be "proud" to shutter the government over border security.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said there are not enough votes in Congress to pass wall funding, and that it would be up to Trump to repeal his demand.

The window for action is narrow. The House does not meet until this Wednesday evening, leaving little time before funding for the Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department expires Friday at midnight.

Some members of Congress have told US media they see little chance of reaching a compromise in the coming days and have advocated for a short-term stopgap spending bill that would punt the problem until January.

Complicating the stalemate, several of the 100-plus lawmakers who are either retiring at year end or lost their seats in November's midterm elections may not be fully motivated to return to Washington this week for a final thrashing out of federal spending.

Should a shutdown occur, it would be relatively limited, as Congress has already funded most government operations through September 2019.

But the American public has little appetite for the standoff, and Trump would likely suffer if the government did close temporarily, polls show.

Forty-three percent of respondents said they would blame Trump and Republicans for a shutdown, compared to 24 percent blaming Democrats, according to a USA Today/Suffolk University Poll. Thirty percent would blame both equally.