Government shutdown: first closure in four years looms hours before deadline

Sabrina Siddiqui and Lauren Gambino in Washington
Donald Trump arrives to speak live via video link to the annual March for Life. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The US government on Friday barreled toward its first shutdown in more than four years, as lawmakers in Congress showed no signs of breaking an impasse over spending priorities and the fate of young undocumented immigrants.

Hours before a deadline of midnight to fund the government, the White House said the prospect of a shutdown had “ratcheted up” and blamed Democrats for objecting to the short-term spending measure that narrowly passed the House of Representatives on Thursday.

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters on Friday evening he expected an agreement to be reached within the next 24 hours. “I think there is a deal in the next 24 hours because of the nature of the back and forth between the House and the Senate I look at more in terms of what gets done before the offices are supposed to open on Monday,” Mulvaney told CNN.

By Friday afternoon, it was clear Democrats and a handful of Republicans were steadfast in their opposition. Donald Trump canceled plans to travel to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida and summoned the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, to the White House.

Despite huddling behind closed doors for an hour and 15 minutes, the two New Yorkers fell short of reaching a deal.

“We made some progress but we still have a good number of disagreements,” Schumer told reporters upon returning to Capitol Hill. “The discussion will continue.”

On Twitter, Trump offered a rosier assessment, declaring: “Excellent preliminary meeting in Oval with @SenSchumer - working on solutions for Security and our great Military together with @SenateMajLdr McConnell and @SpeakerRyan. Making progress - four week extension would be best!”

What is a government shutdown?


When the US Congress fails to pass appropriate funding for government operations and agencies, a shutdown is triggered. Most government services are frozen, barring those that are deemed “essential”, such as the work of the Department of Homeland Security and FBI. During a shutdown, nearly 40% of the government workforce is placed on unpaid furlough and told not to work. Many, but not all, are non-defense federal employees. Active duty military personnel are not furloughed.


Why is the government poised to shut down?


Members of Congress are at an impasse over what should be included in a spending bill to keep the government open. Democrats have insisted any compromise must also include protections for the nearly 700,000 young, undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers, who were brought to the US as children.

The Dreamers, who were granted temporary legal status under Barack Obama, were newly exposed to the threat of deportation when Donald Trump moved to rescind their protections in September.

Trump and Republicans have argued immigration is a separate issue and can be dealt with at a later time.


How common is a shutdown?


There have been 12 government shutdowns in the US since 1981, although ranging in duration. The longest occurred under Bill Clinton, lasting a total of 21 days from December 1995 to January 1996, when the then House speaker, Newt Gingrich, demanded sharp cuts to government programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and welfare.

The most recent shutdown transpired under Obama in 2013, pitting the president against the Republican-led House of Representatives. Republicans refused to support a spending bill that included funding for Obama’s healthcare law, resulting in a 16-day shutdown that at its peak affected 850,000 federal employees.


What would be the cost of a shutdown?


A government shutdown would cost the US roughly $6.5bn a week, according to a report by S&P Global analysts. “A disruption in government spending means no government paychecks to spend; lost business and revenue to private contractors; lost sales at retail shops, particularly those that circle now-closed national parks; and less tax revenue for Uncle Sam,” the report stated. “That means less economic activity and fewer jobs.”

Nearly 1 million people would not receive regular paychecks in the event of a shutdown. In previous shutdowns, furloughed employees have been paid retrospectively – but those payments have often been delayed.

Sabrina Siddiqui


John Cornyn, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said he had spoken to White House chief of staff John Kelly and heard that “the president told [Schumer] to go back to Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and work it out”.
“The ball is in Senator Schumer’s court,” he said.

The meeting came hours after the White House laid blame squarely on the Democratic leader for bringing the federal government to the brink, even coining the term “Schumer shutdown”.

“We do not want a shutdown,” Mulvaney told reporters. “If Mr Schumer insists on it, he is in a position to force this on the American people.”

But a Washington Post-ABC News poll released on Friday found that 48% of Americans would blame Trump and the Republicans in the event of a government shutdown; 28% said the Democrats would be responsible and 18% said both parties would be equally at fault.

In a floor speech in the Senate, Mitch McConnell said a vote on the stopgap spending measure should be a “no brainer”. Democrats were willing to “hold the entire nation hostage” to protect “people who came into the United States illegally”, he said.

“To even repeat this position out loud is to see how completely ridiculous it is.”

This is the greatest country in the world, but we do have some really stupid people representing it from time to time

Republican Orrin Hatch

Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, was more blunt.

“This is the greatest country in the world, but we do have some really stupid people representing it from time to time,” he said.

Trump was preparing to mark his first year in office on Saturday, potentially as the first president to oversee a shutdown with a single party in control of the government.

In an early morning tweet, he wrote: “Shutdown coming? We need more Republican victories in 2018!”

House Republican leaders, who found enough conservative votes to pass an extension of government funding through 16 February, said they would send their members home, escalating pressure on the Senate to pass something similar. In a subsequent advisory, House Republicans were told to “remain flexible”.

Schumer has proposed a shorter stopgap measure, which would expire after four or five days, as a way of averting a shutdown without compromising Democrats’ attempts to negotiate an immigration deal.

Republicans balked at that timeline, noting that the shorter-term proposal would not resolve the issues over immigration or domestic spending.

Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, called the proposal “unproductive”. Mark Meadows, leader of the powerful conservative House Freedom Caucus, rejected it outright.

Senate Democrats cited a number of shortcomings in the House funding bill, ranging from immigration to emergency disaster relief. A handful of conservatives in the Senate also objected, leaving Republicans short of the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster.

A shutdown would place nearly 40% of federal employees on unpaid furlough and cost the US an estimated $6.5bn a week.

The primary sticking point for Democrats remained a failure to offer protections for the nearly 700,000 undocumented migrants, known as Dreamers, who were brought to the US as children. In September, Trump rescinded an Obama-era program that granted temporary legal status, exposing the young migrants to deportation.

The already-fraught negotiations were severely damaged last week when Trump reportedly questioned the need to admit immigrants from “shithole countries”, in reference to Haiti, El Salvador and Africa.

Trump then undermined efforts by Republicans to garner support for their bill, denouncing the measure for including a six-year reauthorization of a popular children’s health insurance program.

The White House strongly rejected the notion that the president had been disengaged and bore some of the blame for the breakdown in bipartisan talks.

“There is no way you could lay this at the feet of the president of the United States,” Mulvaney said. “He is actively working to get a deal.”

Amid the chaos on Friday morning, the Democratic congressman Al Green once again forced the House to vote on Trump’s impeachment. Though the resolution was again postponed on a strong bipartisan vote, it drew more support from Democrats than previously.

Additional reporting by Ben Jacobs