Hundreds of thousands of US federal employees were staying home without pay Monday after lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on ending a government shutdown before the start of the working week.
Although leaders of President Donald Trump’s Republican Party and the opposition Democrats said progress had been made in a weekend of talks, they pushed back a scheduled late-night vote to noon on Monday.
The impasse, the first of its kind since 2013, had already cast a huge shadow over the first anniversary of Trump’s inauguration as president on Saturday.
After special weekend sessions of Congress which had seen bitter recriminations traded by both parties, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged to address Democrat concerns over key issues such as immigration reform in a speech to the chamber late Sunday.
The Senate’s top Democrat Chuck Schumer responded by saying he was “happy to continue my discussion with the majority leader about reopening the government” but added that the parties were “yet to reach an agreement on a path forward.”
McConnell then called for Congress to reconvene for another vote on a stop-gap funding measure at noon, a proposal which was nodded through.
Hopes that the shutdown, which began at midnight Friday, could be limited to the weekend were raised Sunday when a bipartisan group huddled for hours trying to end the standoff, but they ultimately failed to resolve all their differences.
In remarks early Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders accused the Democrats of “playing games”.
“The president’s focus is making sure we get the government reopened. It’s outrageous that Democrats are holding our national security hostage,” she told television network ABC.
Over the weekend Trump had encouraged the Senate’s Republican leaders to invoke the “nuclear option” — a procedural maneuver to change the chamber’s rules to allow passage of a budget by a simple majority of 51 votes to end the shutdown.
But Senate leaders have been wary of such a move in the past, as it could come back to haunt them the next time the other party holds a majority.
Essential services continue
At the heart of the dispute is the issue of undocumented immigration.
Democrats have accused Republicans of poisoning chances of a deal and pandering to Trump’s populist base by refusing to back a program that protects an estimated 700,000 “Dreamers” —undocumented immigrants who arrived as children—from deportation.
Democrats have refused to go along with the temporary federal funding request unless it addresses the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in part because they fear Republican leaders will not act to protect DACA recipients before deportations would begin in large numbers in March.
But in a signal to Democrats, McConnell committed on the Senate floor to addressing immigration in timely fashion.
“Should these issues not be resolved by the time the funding bill before us expires on February 8th, 2018, assuming that the government remains open, it would be my intention to proceed to legislation that would address DACA, border security and related issues,” McConnell said.
But that commitment means little on the other side of the Capitol, where House Republicans told reporters they would not be bound by any agreement reached in the Senate to address immigration.
“I don’t see any of our people interested in some half-baked idea that’s produced by a self-appointed group of senators,” congressman Tom Cole said according to Roll Call.
Essential federal services and military activity are continuing, but even active-duty troops will not be paid until a deal is reached to reopen the US government.
There have been four government shutdowns since 1990. In the last one, more than 800,000 government workers were put on temporary leave.
“We’re just in a holding pattern. We just have to wait and see. It’s scary,” Noelle Joll, 50, a furloughed US government employee, told AFP in Washington.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said that state funding would pay for the reopening Monday of the Statue of Liberty, the inspirational landmark that was among facilities affected by the shutdown.
Republicans have just a one-seat majority in the Senate, and therefore have to lure some Democrats to their side to get a 60-vote super majority to bring the stop-gap funding motion forward.
Highlighting the deep political polarisation, crowds estimated in the hundreds of thousands marched through major US cities over the weekend against the president and his policies and to express support for women’s rights.
© Agence France-Presse