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US govt lurches to shut down as Trump, Democrats spar over wall

President Donald Trump appeared to harden his demand for $5 billion in funding for the wall on the US-Mexico border,

FILE: President Donald Trump signs an executive order to start the Mexico border wall project. Picture: AFP.

WASHINGTON - Donald Trump and congressional Democrats stood at stark odds Thursday as the president baulked at a spending stopgap that contains no border wall funding, leaving the US government on the precipice of a Christmastime shutdown.

The unpredictable leader’s rejection of a measure that unanimously passed the Senate and was under consideration in the House plunged Washington into political chaos barely 24 hours before midnight on Friday deadline that sees funding expire for key agencies.

Trump appeared to harden his demand for $5 billion in funding for the wall on the US-Mexico border, something 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 8 February, to allow time for debate about issues including border security.

But with ultra-conservative lawmakers and media personalities effectively demanding that the president sticks 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 in border wall funding, and $7.8 billion in disaster relief.

The bill passed the House with no Democratic support. It 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 the shock revelation that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, a stabilising force in Trump’s administration, was stepping down.

“The bottom line is simple,” he added. “The Trump temper tantrum may produce a government shutdown. It will not get him his wall.”

‘MELTDOWN’

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%.

Trump had backed off his shutdown threat earlier this week, but it roared back to life as he accused Democrats of “putting politics over the 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.

A statement by White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders suggested that was unlikely.

“We urgently need funding for border security and that includes a wall,” she said.

Pelosi, the likely new speaker of the House when Democrats reclaim the majority 3 January, meanwhile accused Republicans of having a “meltdown” over whether to pass the stopgap measure or force a shutdown.

The news of Trump’s rejection caught many Republican lawmakers flat-footed.

“Are you ruining my life?” Senator Susan Collins joked to The Hill when informed of Trump’s decision, adding that she does not believe there are sufficient votes to pass a modified continuing resolution through Congress.

Fellow Republican Senator Roy Blunt said worry is likely to set in on Friday.

“It’s hard to come up with politics that are worse than shutdown politics,” he told Politico. “Unless it’s shutdown at Christmas politics.”

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.

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