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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 January 2019

Trump threatens years-long government shutdown

Talks have resumed between White House officials and congressional staffers over impasse

President Donald Trump confers with Vice President Mike Pence and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise after a meeting with with Congressional leaders about the government shutdown. Reuters
President Donald Trump confers with Vice President Mike Pence and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise after a meeting with with Congressional leaders about the government shutdown. Reuters

Talks resumed on Saturday to try to resolve the US government shutdown as Donald Trump refused to give ground on his demands for a border wall and said the closure could last for years.

With the deadlock entering its third week, the shutdown is now the second longest in the past 20 years leaving about 800,000 federal workers unpaid and struggling to pay their bills.

The result is something approaching a test of virility as Mr Trump attempts to seize control of the narrative after disappointing midterm results and growing whispers that he may face a primary challenge ahead of the 2020 election.

Supporters say the president is emboldened after the holiday break. He now has a clear target to take on since the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives last week.

In a string of Saturday morning tweets he claimed the wall was essentially for keeping out drugs, criminals and gang members, and he once again made clear whom he believed was to blame.

“The Democrats could solve the Shutdown problem in a very short period of time. All they have to do is approve REAL Border Security (including a Wall), something which everyone, other than drug dealers, human traffickers and criminals, want very badly,” he wrote.

And a day earlier he insisted he had the support of federal workers.

“I'm very proud of doing what I'm doing,” he said as he spelled out his defiance at the White House on Friday. “I don't call it a shutdown. I call it doing what you have to do for the benefit and for the safety of our country.”

Further raising the stakes, he suggested he could declare a national emergency to push through the $5.6 billion he wants for his wall with Mexico.

That stance has caused jitters within his own Republican Party and anger among Democrats.

They have hardened their position against the wall, now arguing not just that it is a waste of money but also “immoral” in the words of Nancy Pelosi, newly installed as Speaker of the House.

Chuck Schumer, who leads Democrats in the Senate, said: “We told the president we needed the government open. He resisted. In fact, he said he’d keep the government closed for a very long period of time, months or even years.”

Mr Trump later confirmed the remark, made during meetings at the White House.

Mike Pence, the vice-president, Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law and Kristjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security Secretary, were due to resume talks with congressional leaders on Saturday.

However, with both sides dug in few expect rapid progress.

Liberal commentators have even suggested an ulterior motive at work, that Mr Trump has found a way to halt federal investigations into his campaign’s links to Russia.

Rachel Maddow, the most popular anchor on the MSNBC cable channel, told her viewers: “At this point, I think everybody in the country is having sort of the same feeling that the president fantasising out loud today about a federal government shutdown that goes on for years, maybe that had a little something to do with his personal fantasy that that would end the federal law enforcement and counter-intelligence investigations into him and his business and his campaign.”

But Michael Johns, a Tea Party founder, said Mr Trump had correctly identified the most important issue in American politics and said Democrats were to blame for shifting their stance on border security.

“It’s unfortunate that you’ve seen the complete politicisation of the debate in the sense that Democrats who historically had supported a border wall now see it as a political volleyball to use against the president,” he said.

The shutdown began on December 22 when Republicans failed to get Senate support for a spending bill that included $5bn for the wall.

Last week, Democrats in the House passed spending bills to re-open the government, including more than $1bn for border security measures. However, Republicans in the Senate have made clear they will not pass legislation without the support of the president.

That means an impasse for now. Nine departments are shuttered and about a quarter of the federal government has no funding.

The longer the shutdown lasts, the more departments will run out of money and close services.

The Internal Revenue Service has reduced its workforce to a skeleton staff. With the tax filing season due to begin in the middle of January that could affect refunds being paid to millions of people, with knock-on effects for spending and the economy.

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And The Washington Post reports that 38 million low-income Americans are at risk of missing out on food stamps if the shutdown lasts into February.

Although federal workers are likely to eventually get their missed pay, producing a delayed spending spike and reducing the overall harm to the US economy, there will still be hardship.

“Not everyone gets that,” said Scott Baker, associate professor of finance at Northwestern University, who studied the impact of the last major shutdown in 2013. “Federal contractors who aren’t directly employed by the federal government they get furloughed, they’ll just forgo their wages. And as the fraction of contractors as part of the federal workforce has been increasing, that becomes more of an issue.”

But with no end in sight, the gloom for workers – and people who rely on federal services – is only likely to deepen.

Updated: January 5, 2019 09:03 PM

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