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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 16 February 2019

US politicians resume negotiations to end shutdown

Talks follow Senate's rejection of competing bills to fund federal government

US President Donald Trump attends a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House on January 24, 2019. Bloomberg
US President Donald Trump attends a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House on January 24, 2019. Bloomberg

A splintered Senate voted against competing Democratic and Republican plans for ending the 35-day partial US government shutdown, but the twin setbacks prompted a burst of bipartisan talks aimed at temporarily halting the longest-ever closure of federal agencies.

In the first serious exchange in weeks, the Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell called the Democratic minority leader Chuck Schumer to his office on Thursday to explore ways to resolve the vitriolic stalemate. Senators from both sides floated a plan to reopen agencies for three weeks and pay hundreds of thousands of beleaguered federal workers while politicians try to reach a deal.

At the White House, President Donald Trump told reporters he would support "a reasonable agreement". He suggested he would also want a "prorated down payment" on funding for his long-sought border wall with Mexico. The president said he had "other alternatives" for getting wall funding, an apparent reference to his disputed claim that he could declare a national emergency and fund the wall's construction using other programmes in the federal budget.

"At least we're talking about it. That's better than it was before," Mr McConnell told reporters in one of the most encouraging statements heard since the shutdown began on December 22.

Even so, it was unclear whether the flurry would produce results.

The Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi said a "big" down payment would not be "a reasonable agreement". Asked if she knew how much money Mr Trump meant, Ms Pelosi said: "I don't know if he knows what he's talking about."

Mr Schumer's spokesman said the Democrats had made clear "that they will not support funding for the wall, prorated or otherwise".

Contributing to the pressure on legislators to find a solution is the difficulty being faced by 800,000 federal workers who on Friday missed the second of their fortnightly pay cheques.

Thursday's Senate votes came after Vice President Mike Pence lunched privately with Republican senators, who told him they were itching for the standoff to end, participants said. Senator Roy Blunt said their message to Mr Pence was "find a way forward".

In an embarrassment to Mr Trump, the Democratic proposal got two more votes than the Republican plan, even though Republicans control the 100-seat Senate 53-47. Six Republicans backed the Democratic plan, including Mitt Romney, who has clashed periodically with the president.

The Senate first rejected a Republican plan to reopen until September and give Mr Trump the $5.7 billion (Dh21bn) he has demanded to building the border wall. The 50-47 vote for the measure fell 10 shy of the 60 votes needed to succeed.

Minutes later, senators voted 52-44 for a Democratic alternative that sought to open government agencies until February 8 with no wall money. That was eight votes short. It was aimed at giving negotiators time to seek an accord while paying salaries to government workers who are either working without pay or being forced to stay home.

Legislators said the Senate votes could be a reality check that would prod the resumption of talks. Throughout, the two sides have issued mutually exclusive demands that have blocked negotiations from even starting. Mr Trump has refused to reopen government until Congress gives him the wall money, and congressional Democrats have rejected bargaining until he reopens government.

Thursday's votes could "teach us that the leaders are going to have to get together and figure out how to resolve this," said John Thune, the Republicans' No 2 leader in the Senate. "One way or another we've got to get out of this. This is no win for anybody."

Initially, partisan potshots flowed freely.

Ms Pelosi accused Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross of a "'let them eat cake' kind of attitude" after he said on television that he did not understand why unpaid civil servants were resorting to homeless shelters for food. Even as Ms Pelosi offered to meet the president "anytime", Mr Trump stood firm, tweeting, "Without a Wall it all doesn't work.... We will not Cave!"

As the Senate debated the two proposals, Mr McConnell said the Democratic plan would let that party's legislators "make political points and nothing else" because Mr Trump would not sign it.

Mr Schumer criticized the Republican plan for endorsing Mr Trump's proposal to keep the government closed until he gets what he wants.

"A vote for the president's plan is an endorsement of government by extortion," Mr Schumer said. "If we let him do it today, he'll do it tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow."

Mr McConnell's engagement was viewed as a constructive sign because he has a history of helping resolve partisan standoffs. For weeks, he let Mr Trump and the Democrats try to reach an accord and, until Thursday, had barred any votes on legislation Mr Trump would not sign.

In consultation with their Senate counterparts, House Democrats were preparing a new border security package that might be rolled out Friday. The Democratic package was expected to include $5.7bn, the same amount Mr Trump wants for his wall, but it would be used instead for fencing, technology, personnel and other measures.

Updated: January 25, 2019 11:55 AM

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