No end in sight to US government shutdown
President Trump re-ups threat to close Mexico border amid spat with Democrats
It is looking increasingly like the partial US government shutdown will continue into the new year, with no signs of a resolution to the first big confrontation between President Donald Trump and Democrats as they prepare to take control of the House of Representatives.
Now nearly a week old, the impasse has left hundreds of thousands of federal workers idle and is beginning to pinch citizens who count on varied public services. Gates are closed at some national parks, the government will not issue new federal flood insurance policies and in New York, the chief judge of Manhattan federal courts suspended work on civil cases involving US government lawyers, including several in which Mr Trump himself is a defendant.
Congress is closing out the week without a resolution in sight over the issue holding up an agreement — Mr Trump's demand for money to build a border wall with Mexico and Democrats' refusal to give him what he wants.
That sets up a struggle when Democrats take control of the House on January 3. Mr Trump has signalled he welcomes the fight as he heads towards his own bid for re-election in 2020.
On Friday Mr Trump threatened to close the "entirety" of the southern border with Mexico unless the "Obstructionist Democrats" did not help pay for the wall or "change the ridiculous immigration laws" he claimed the US was saddled with.
He resumed his criticism of the North American Trade Agreement, which the president said resulted in the US losing $75 billion (Dh 275.45 billion) a year in deals with Mexico This figure did not include drug money, "which would be many times that amount," Mr Trump said on social media. He also threatened to cut off aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, countries from which many migrants have fled.
The president had previously tweeted on Thursday the dispute had nothing to do with the wall. "This is only about the Dems not letting Donald Trump & the Republicans have a win." He added Democrats may be able to block him now, "but we have the issue, Border Security. 2020!"
With another long holiday weekend coming, just days before House Republicans relinquish control, there is little expectation of a quick fix. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has vowed to pass legislation as soon as she takes the gavel, which is expected when the new Congress convenes, to reopen the 15 shuttered departments and dozens of agencies now hit by the partial shutdown.
"If they can't do it before January 3, then we will do it," said Democrat Jim McGovern, incoming chairman of the House Rules Committee. "We're going to do the responsible thing. We're going to behave like adults and do our job."
But even that may be difficult without a compromise because the Senate will remain in Republican hands and Mr Trump's signature will be needed to turn any bill into law. Negotiations continue between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, but there is only so much Congress can do without the president.
Mr Trump is not budging, having panned Democratic offers to keep money at current levels — $1.3 billion (Dh4.8bn) for border fencing, but not the wall. Senate Republicans approved that compromise in an earlier bill with Democrats but now say they won't be voting on any more unless something is agreed to by all sides, including Trump.
"I think it's obvious that until the president decides he can sign something — or something is presented to him — that we are where we are," said Republican Senator Pat Roberts, who opened the Senate on Thursday for a session that only lasted minutes.
"Call it anything," he added, "barrier, fence, I won't say the 'w' word."
Mr Trump has long promised that Mexico would pay for the wall, but Mexico refuses to do so.
Federal workers and contractors forced to stay home or work without pay are experiencing mounting stress from the impasse.
As the partial shutdown stretched towards a second week, Ethan James, 21, a minimum-wage contractor sidelined from his job as an office worker at the Interior Department, wondered if he would be able to pay his rent. Contractors, unlike most federal employees, may never get back pay for being idled. "I'm getting nervous," he said. "I live cheque to cheque right now."
For those without a financial cushion, even a few days of lost wages during the shutdown could have dire consequences.
Roughly federal 420,000 workers were deemed essential and are working unpaid, unable to take any sick days or vacation. An additional 380,000 are staying home without pay.
Like Mr James, Mary Morrow, a components engineer on contract for Nasa, is in a predicament. In addition to caring for a family largely on her own, she has got a mortgage.
"I have three teenage boys, it's near Christmas time and we just spent money, there are credit card bills and normal bills and it's really nerve-racking," she said. "It's scary."
Steve Reaves, president of Federal Emergency Management Agency union, said the shutdown could have consequences that stretch beyond a temporary suspension of salary. Many federal government jobs require a security clearance, he said, and missed mortgage payments or deepening debt could hurt their clearance.
David Dollard, a Federal Bureau of Prisons employee and chief steward for the American Federation of Government Employees Local 709 union in Colorado, said at least two agency employees lost their homes after the 2013 shutdown suspended their salaries. Bureau of Prisons employees are considered essential, and must work without pay. The agency is already understaffed, Mr Dollard said. Shutdown conditions make everything worse.
"You start out at $44,000 a year, there's not much room for anything else as far saving money for the next government shutdown, so it puts staff in a very hard situation," he said. "We've got single fathers who have child support, alimony. It's very hard to figure out what you're going to do."
Candice Nesbitt, 51, has worked for one and a half years for the US Coast Guard, the only branch of the military affected by the shutdown. About 44,000 Coast Guard employees are working this week without pay; 6,000, including Ms Nesbitt, have been furloughed.
She use to work for a contractor but took a pay cut in exchange for the stability of a government job. She has a mortgage, is the guardian of her special needs 5-year-old grandson, and makes about $45,000 a year, she said. Any lapse in payment could plunge her into debt.
"It shakes me to the core," she said.
Updated: December 29, 2018 12:57 AM