Washington – Hundreds of thousands of US federal employees will stay 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 vote scheduled for 1:00 am (2 p.m. Manila time) Monday for another 11 hours.
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 had been raised Sunday when a bipartisan group huddled for hours on trying to end the standoff, but they ultimately failed to resolve all their differences.
Earlier in the day Trump 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.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump had spoken during the day with McConnell and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn. She did not mention Trump’s speaking with any Democrats but said White House director of legislative affairs Marc Short had been in touch with members of both parties and updated the president.
“We are continuing to work hard towards reopening the government,” Sanders said.
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 (DACA) 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 address 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.