Washington, D.C.: The prospect of an embarrassing Christmas-time shutdown of the US government loomed on Friday as President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats remained far apart on a stopgap funding bill held up by discord over money for a border wall.
An air of chaos hung over Washington as a midnight deadline approached for lawmakers and the president to find a way to do a very basic task: keep the government up and running.
If they do not, key agencies will close and many workers will be furloughed right before Christmas without a pay cheque.
The sense of turmoil was compounded by a falling stock market and Trump’s abrupt decision to disregard advisers and allies and pull out of Syria and sharply reduce the US troop presence in Afghanistan.
Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, seen as a moderating force for an impulsive president, resigned in protest over the Syria decision and Trump’s approach to international alliances that are at the heart of US foreign policy.
On government funding, Trump reversed course on Thursday and rejected a measure that unanimously passed the Senate and was under consideration in the House.
He appeared to harden his demand for $5 billion (Dh18.36 billion) in funding for the wall on the US-Mexico border, a pet project 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, 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 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 (Dh23.91 billion) in border wall funding, and $7.8 billion in disaster relief.
The bill passed the House, but with no Democratic support.
But the bill will be dead on arrival in the 100-member Senate, where bills need 60 votes to advance and Republicans control 51 seats.
Senate Democrats were united in opposition as the likely Friday showdown in that 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 word that Mattis is stepping down in February.
“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 2.0 per cent.
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 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 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.
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 health care reforms.