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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

White House warns of shutdown as spending bill stalls in Senate

Republican senator Rand Paul, a fiscal hawk, rejected a rapid vote on bill and held up the bipartisan agreement

Senator Rand Paul blasted the increase in federal spending limits and said he would not allow the Republican-controlled Senate to hold a quick vote. EPA/SHAWN THEW
Senator Rand Paul blasted the increase in federal spending limits and said he would not allow the Republican-controlled Senate to hold a quick vote. EPA/SHAWN THEW

The White House said Thursday it was preparing for a US government shutdown as Congress hit a stumbling block in its efforts to pass a stopgap spending bill before midnight.

With just hours to go before current federal funding expires, the effort stalled in the Senate when one lawmaker blocked a quick vote on the compromise bill, which includes a major budget deal that lifts federal spending limits.

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) “is currently preparing for a lapse in appropriations,” an OMB official said on condition of anonymity, calling on lawmakers to get the measure to president Donald Trump’s desk “without delay”.

With each passing hour, that result was looking less and less likely.

The bill, which extends government funding for six weeks and raises the federal debt ceiling, would break the cycle of government funding crises in time for what is set to be a bruising campaign for November’s mid-term elections.

Despite simmering rebellion among Republicans and Democrats over a bipartisan budget agreement struck on Wednesday to end the logjam, the Senate had been aiming to vote on the deal later Thursday before sending it to the House.

But moving legislation quickly through the upper chamber of Congress requires consent by all 100 members, and Republican senator Rand Paul threw a wrench in the works by objecting to a rapid vote.

Mr Paul took the floor to blast the increase in federal spending limits and said he would not allow the Republican-controlled Senate to hold a quick vote.

“I can’t in all good honesty and all good faith just look the other way because my party is now complicit in the deficits,” Mr Paul said.

“If you’re against [Barack] Obama’s deficits, but you’re for the Republican deficits, isn’t that the very definition of hypocrisy?” he said, adding that he wants his fellow lawmakers “to be uncomfortable”.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer warned that time was running short.

“We’re in risky territory here,” he said.

Should Mr Paul stand his ground, Senate rules dictate that majority leader Mitch McConnell can declare a new session at midnight, then hold a procedural vote on the spending bill one hour into the new day. A final vote would follow.

If passed, the bill would then head to the House of Representatives. If it passes and gets signed by Mr Trump, who supports the measure, it could result in only a brief closure of government operations.

But the deal’s fate in the House is far from certain.

Fiscal conservatives in the lower chamber may baulk at adding billions of dollars to the national debt two months after passing a $1.5 trillion tax cut package.

And liberal stalwarts including top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi were also in revolt, because the deal does nothing to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation.

House speaker Paul Ryan appeared to shrug off concerns that several Republicans might oppose the deal.

“I think we’re going to be fine,” he said in a radio interview about the looming vote.

The temporary spending bill under consideration incorporates the major budget deal struck Wednesday between Senate leaders on both sides of the political aisle.

That agreement includes a $300 billion increase to both military and non-military spending limits for this year and 2019, and raises the debt until March 1 next year.

It also provides a massive $90 billion in disaster relief and funding to address the nationwide opioid abuse crisis.

“It’s a strong signal that we can break the gridlock that has overwhelmed this body and work together for the good of the country,” Mr Schumer said earlier Thursday.

Democrats have sought to link the federal funding debate to a permanent solution for hundreds of thousands of ‘Dreamer’ immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.

Dreamers were shielded from deportation under the Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). But Mr Trump ended the program last September, setting March 5 as a deadline for resolving the issue.

Facing tightening numbers for Thursday’s vote, Mr Ryan said he was prepared to address the immigration issue head on.

“I know that there is a real commitment to solving the DACA challenge in both political parties. That’s a commitment that I share,” Mr Ryan told reporters.

The White House’s current proposal – one that would put 1.8 million immigrants on a path to citizenship, but also boost border security, and dramatically curtail legal immigration – has been panned by Democrats.

Several bipartisan efforts have stalled.

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