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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 April 2019

US shutdown looms as Democrats face off with Donald Trump over border wall

President insists that stopgap spending bill must fund one of his main campaign pledges

Democrats Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, and Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, speak to reporters on December 20, 2018. AP Photo
Democrats Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, and Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, speak to reporters on December 20, 2018. AP Photo

A standoff between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats over funding for a border wall has left the US government on the verge of a Christmastime shutdown.

Mr Trumps's rejection of a measure that unanimously passed the Senate and was under consideration in the House plunged Washington into political chaos barely 24 hours before a midnight Friday deadline that sees funding expire for key agencies.

Mr Trump appeared to harden his demand for $5 billion in funding for the wall on the US-Mexico border, something he has fought for since he began campaigning for president in 2015.

Republican leaders had planned to pass a so-called continuing resolution (CR) that would fully fund the government until February 8, to allow time for debate about issues including border security.

But with ultra-conservative lawmakers and media personalities effectively demanding that the president stick to his campaign promises, Mr Trump doubled down.

"I've made my position very clear. Any measure that funds the government has to include border security," he said at a White House event.

"Walls work, whether we like it or not," he added. "They work better than anything."

Democrats have refused to budge, saying they will not support a spending measure that funds Mr Trump's wall.

"That's a non-starter," said top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi. "I think they know that."

Republicans nevertheless soldiered on, crafting a new measure that would appease the president's demands. It includes $5.7 billion in border wall funding, and $7.8bn in disaster relief.

The bill passed the House, but with no Democratic support.

"Thank you to our GREAT Republican Members of Congress for your VOTE to fund Border Security and the Wall," Mr Trump tweeted Thursday night.

"The final numbers were 217-185 and many have said that the enthusiasm was greater than they have ever seen before. So proud of you all. Now on to the Senate!"

But the bill will be dead on arrival in the 100-member Senate, where it needs 60 votes to advance and Republicans control only 51 seats.

Senate Democrats were united in opposition as a showdown in the chamber loomed. Many senators from both parties have already left Washington for the holidays.

"President Trump is plunging the country into chaos," warned Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, citing shutdown fears, fresh economic woes, and the shock revelation that Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, a stabilising force in Mr Trump's administration, was stepping down.

"The bottom line is simple," he added. "The Trump temper tantrum may produce a government shutdown. It will not get him his wall."

Fears of a shutdown - which could send thousands of federal employees home without pay just before Christmas - helped send US stocks tumbling, with the Dow closing down 2 per cent.

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Mr Trump had backed off his shutdown threat earlier this week, but it roared back to life as he accused Democrats of "putting politics over country" by not supporting a wall, which he insists will curb illegal immigration.

His move may have been influenced by members of the House Freedom caucus, some of whom have publicly called on the Republican president to stick to his guns on wall funding.

"Mr President, we'll back you up," caucus chairman Mark Meadows said on the House floor late on Wednesday. "If you veto this bill [with no wall funding], we'll be there."

With conditions fluid on Capitol Hill, it appeared that a retreat by Mr Trump was the only path to averting a shutdown.

However, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders suggested that was unlikely.

"We urgently need funding for border security and that includes a wall," she said.

Ms Pelosi, expected to be the new speaker of the House when Democrats reclaim the majority on January 3, accused Republicans of having a "meltdown" over whether to pass the stopgap measure or force a shutdown.

The news of Mr Trump's rejection caught many Republican legislators flat-footed.

"It's hard to come up with politics that are worse than shutdown politics,"

Senator Roy Blunt told Politico. "Unless it's shutdown at Christmas politics."

The US government endured two brief shutdowns in early 2018. A far more crippling shutdown in 2013 lasted 16 days, with about 800,000 federal workers furloughed amid a fight over funding Barack Obama's healthcare reforms.

Updated: December 21, 2018 04:23 PM

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