Washington: The US government officially entered a partial shutdown early Saturday as Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans blocked a House-passed bill to fund the government after the two parties failed to break their deadlock over immigration.
As the midnight passed, senators kept haggling over whether a funding extension shorter than the four-weeks passed by the House might provide a bridge for negotiations.
With Democrats mostly unified in their opposition and defections in the Republican ranks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell couldn’t muster the 60 votes needed to get the temporary funding measure to the floor before the deadline to act.
“What we’ve just witnessed on the floor was a cynical decision by Senate Democrats to shove aside millions of Americans for the sake of irresponsible political games," McConnell said after the voting was finished.
McConnell proposed extending funding for three weeks to 8 February, a timetable Democrats had previously rejected. No immediate vote was scheduled. Any new funding legislation will require another vote in the House. Lawmakers there, who had been preparing to leave Washington on Friday, will be in session on Saturday.
With lawmakers unable to reach an agreement on funding, agencies set in motion a partial shutdown, one year from the day President Donald Trump was inaugurated.
As midnight approached, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders put out a combative statement accusing Democrats and their Senate leader Chuck Schumer of behaving like “obstructionist losers, not legislators" and saying there would be no negotiations until the shutdown ends.
“Senate Democrats own the Schumer Shutdown," she said in the statement. “We will not negotiate the status of unlawful immigrants while Democrats hold our lawful citizens hostage over their reckless demands."
Democrats are demanding legislation to protect undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children and Republicans are setting conditions for border security and enforcement.
Schumer said after the vote that when he met with Trump at the White House earlier Friday, they appeared to have reached the “outline of a deal" on issues including immigration and health care. Instead, he said, Trump folded when he got pushback from Republicans.
“He backed off at the first sign of pressure," Schumer said on the Senate floor.
A day spent on phone calls and meetings, including the face-to-face discussion between Trump and Schumer, briefly raised hopes that a solution was within grasp. But pessimism spread in the Capitol as it was clear no deal had been reached at the White House meeting and the midnight deadline approached.
“I don’t think anybody knows what’s going to happen next," Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, said earlier Friday, before the vote.
The White House and federal agencies spent Friday mapping out how to proceed if the deadline passed without an agreement. Some departments revived shutdown plans from the Obama years. The administration wanted as little disruption as possible. For instance, mail will continue to be delivered; airport control towers will be staffed; and the Interior Department hopes to keep the national parks open.
White House officials from Trump down had put on an optimistic front early in the day.
“Excellent preliminary meeting in Oval with @SenSchumer," the president wrote on Twitter, less than seven hours before the midnight deadline.
The White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney predicted Republicans and Democrats would strike an agreement before the weekend was out to provide temporary funding for the government that would let federal agencies open on schedule Monday.
“I think there’s a deal in the next 24 hours," Mulvaney said on CNN.
If there’s not, both sides were ready to place blame.
Schumer blamed the standoff on Trump’s inability to set a clear path and the failure of Republican congressional leaders to deliver on immigration. He said the president is the “single driving force in scuttling bipartisan deals in Congress."
Mulvaney, at a White House briefing, said the administration was “preparing for what we’re calling the Schumer Shutdown." Sanders tweeted out the hashtag #SchumerShutdown.
One potential way out would be significant progress on immigration among congressional Democrats and Republicans and the White House. Members of Trump’s administration, including Chief of Staff John Kelly and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, have been shuttling between meetings at the Capitol where members of both parties have been working on a getting a deal.
Democrats have been demanding that Congress act now to protect the young immigrants who are shielded under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump plans to end on March 5. Republicans want to pair that issue with stronger border security and restrictions on other immigration programs.
The House earlier voted 230-197 largely along party lines to pass a bill that would have continued government financing at current levels until Feb. 16. It included a six-year extension of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and a delay in implementation of three taxes imposed by the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.
Representative Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania, said there’s no mystery about what is needed to resolve the impasse, since these issues had been on the table since September.
“Leadership here is going to have to allow a vote on a bipartisan DACA bill -- take the bull by the horns and do it," Dent said, using the acronym for the immigration program at the center of the standoff. “Because we’re not going to remove ourselves from this treadmill of continuing resolutions until we have a bipartisan budget agreement. And we will not have a bipartisan budget agreement until there is an agreement on DACA." Bloomberg