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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 January 2019

US government shutdown over border wall becomes longest in history 

A quarter of the US federal government is closed and 800,000 workers unpaid

A construction crew works as new sections of the US-Mexico border barrier are installed replacing smaller fences on January 11, 2019 as seen from Tijuana, Mexico. Getty
A construction crew works as new sections of the US-Mexico border barrier are installed replacing smaller fences on January 11, 2019 as seen from Tijuana, Mexico. Getty

The painful, partial shutdown of the US federal government became the longest in history on Saturday as it entered its 22nd day with fresh misery for workers who missed pay cheques for the first time this year.

The closure – triggered by a stand-off between Donald Trump and Democrats over the president’s demand to fund his border wall – is now longer than a 21-day shutdown under President Bill Clinton at the end of 1995.

With negotiations stalled and no end in sight, a quarter of the federal government remains out of operation and 800,000 workers unpaid.

The result is a growing tide of disruption around the country, affecting an extraordinary array of services. Miami International Airport said it was closing one terminal early each day from Saturday because of a shortage of security screeners. Food banks are gearing up for surging demand. Brewers complain they cannot get government approval for new beers. Thousands of mortgages are in limbo and immigration courts are closed.

Polls suggest the public blames Mr Trump for the impasse over his request for $5.7 billion (Dh20.9 billion) in funding for his wall, leaving nervous Republicans scrambling for a way out.

The President was believed to be mulling declaring a national emergency over immigration at America’s southern border, freeing up alternative resources for his plan. However, he scotched the idea on Friday and insisted he would rather reach a deal with Congress.

"We have a massive Humanitarian Crisis at our Southern Border," he tweeted yesterday, insisting the wall was the only way ahead. "We will be out for a long time unless the Democrats come back from their “vacations” and get back to work. I am in the White House ready to sign!"

There was some good news for furloughed workers. The House and Senate voted on Friday to give federal workers back pay whenever the government does finally reopen.

But that brought cold comfort to employees opening their mid-January pay cheques during the past 48 hours. Many took to social media to publish pictures of zero-dollar pay stubs.

"I saw the zeros in my pay stub today, and it's a combination of reality setting in and just sadness," Josh Maria, an air traffic controller, told The Associated Press after tweeting a screenshot of his pay stub. "We're America. We can do better than this."

Nine of the 15 Cabinet-level departments have not been funded – including Homeland Security, State, Transportation and Agriculture. Iconic National Park facilities are closed as well as the Smithsonian museums. And most of Nasa, the space agency, has been sent home.

About 420,000 federal employees are deemed essential and continue to work unpaid. Another 380,000 have been told not to turn up. Thousands more are contract workers who are unable to work and are unlikely to receive back pay.

That leaves families taking increasingly desperate measures to stay afloat as bills loom, taking extra work on the side or selling household goods on Ebay or Facebook.

“Sells for $93.88 at Walmart. Asking $10,” wrote one worker on Craigslist as he posted an ad for a children’s rocker. “We need money to pay bills.”

More than 1000 people have set up GoFundMe pages to raise money for bills or to keep their businesses afloat.

They include Katherine Ogilvie, a 46-year-old mother of three from California, who makes her living by assembling and selling craft kits that teach basketry, pottery and weaving skills.

“Over half my company's income is from National Park stores,” she wrote on her appeal. “I have orders I cannot ship due to the closure and I am waiting on $2282 in unpaid, past due federal agency invoices. I am facing $6000 in lost sales if government doesn't open by the end of January.”

Last week, the Coastguard sent employees a five-page tip sheet offering ideas on how to survive the shutdown. As well as trimming household expenditure and negotiating with creditors, it suggested holding a garage sale, offering babysitting services to neighbours or working as a “mystery shopper” for agencies who monitor service in retail stores.

Things could yet get worse for beneficiaries of services if the shutdown continues into February.

Some 38 million low-income Americans risk losing access to food stamps, another two million people are reliant on rental assistance and the federal court system is in danger of grinding to a halt.

Last week, Mr Trump attempted to wrest back a narrative which casts him as the villain of the piece. He used his first Oval Office address to talk up a humanitarian crisis at the border and pressed his case with a visit on Thursday as he attempted to blame Democrats for failing to act.

He believes the issue of immigration gives him a political win despite the turmoil. But that has triggered unease among some Republican senators, five of whom backed a bill to resume payments to the 420,000 working without pay.

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Read more:

Donald Trump 'not in a rush' to declare emergency in border wall fight

US shutdown leaves worried workers struggling to pay the bills

Donald Trump walks out of talks with Democrats on shutdown

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Democrats show no sign of backing down.

Nancy Pelosi, House Speaker, said the battle was the President’s way of distracting from Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion with Russia and other problems.

“This isn’t a wall between Mexico and the United States. This is a wall between his failures of his administration,” she said. “This is a big diversion, and he’s a master of diversion.”

Updated: January 12, 2019 08:26 PM

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