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Trump delays speech, stands firm on wall ahead of shutdown votes

The shutdown is now in its 34th day, with hundreds of thousands of federal workers left unpaid across the country and in US installations abroad.

US President Donald Trump. Picture: AFP

WASHINGTON - After being forced into shelving his annual State of the Union address by top Democrat Nancy Pelosi, President Donald Trump faced a fresh setback on Thursday, as lawmakers were expected to nix his latest proposal to end the US government shutdown.

Late Wednesday, Trump blinked in his standoff with Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, over the timing of his speech, agreeing to delay it until the shutdown ends as she had insisted.

The shutdown is now in its 34th day, with hundreds of thousands of federal workers left unpaid across the country and in US installations abroad - and the knock-on effects affecting millions more.

The US Senate was scheduled to hold two votes Thursday on duelling proposals to reopen shuttered federal agencies, but both are expected to fail.

Though politically bruised by his battle with Pelosi, Trump stood firm on his demand for billions of dollars in funding for a wall on the border with Mexico as part of an overall budget package.

"Very simply, without a Wall it all doesn’t work," he tweeted at Pelosi.

"We will not Cave!"

And yet Trump had capitulated hours earlier on the State of the Union.

After initial threats to either deliver the speech at the Capitol despite Pelosi's rescinding of her invitation or deliver it elsewhere, the Republican president said he would honour her request to delay it.

"This is her prerogative -- I will do the Address when the Shutdown is over," Trump wrote.

DEADLOCK

As acrimony in Washington grew, lawmakers across the political spectrum were left searching in vain for an exit strategy for the longest-ever halt to federal operations, as furloughed government employees and contractors vented their fury on Capitol Hill.

Before the Senate are two bills: one would reopen the government and include the $5.7 billion in funding that Trump demands for his border wall, plus immigration policy changes.

The other is a Democratic bid that would reopen government through February 8, allowing two weeks for negotiation over border security and immigration.

"There's no excuse for Senate Republicans not to pass this legislation," Pelosi told reporters, referring to the Democratic plan. "Who can say no to that?"

Pelosi, a 78-year-old California Democrat who is the only woman ever to serve as House speaker, has become the face of Democratic opposition to Trump in Congress.

She is one of the sharpest political tacticians of her generation, and has clearly seized the upper hand in the fracas, slamming Trump for treating furloughed federal workers as "hostages to the president's applause line in a campaign speech."

With the crisis growing, it may well open the door to a potential compromise.

'WILL WORK FOR PAY'

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the chamber that "it's time to make a deal."

Most Democrats oppose direct funds for wall construction, but some have begun publicly advocating for negotiating a solution that includes boosted border funding, including for border structures.

And Pelosi herself said Thursday that "we will have some of our proposals for what comes next" in upcoming legislation offerings.

"Look, I think physical barriers are part of the solution," Steny Hoyer, the number two House Democrat, told Fox News.

"We want to make sure that people who come into the United States are authorized to do so," he added. "We're for border security and I think we can get there."

The shutdown, which has seen some 800,000 federal employees left without pay for a month, was triggered by Trump's refusal to sign funding bills in December, in retaliation for Democratic opposition to funds for extending walls along the US-Mexico border.

With no solution in sight, many workers were bracing for Friday, when they expect to miss their second paycheck in a row.

The House, now controlled by Democrats, has passed multiple bills that would open government, but the Republican-run Senate is aligned with Trump's border wall push.

The Senate votes have the potential to break the impasse, but since each requires 60 votes to advance in the 100-member chamber, their passage is unlikely.

Government shutdowns are a disruptive political ritual that have occurred in various administrations and are almost unique to the American system.

This one is the longest on record and has left a broad swath of federal workers unpaid -- among them airport security officers, FBI agents, museum workers and US Coast Guard personnel.

Some are still working, though without pay. Others are on forced unpaid leave.

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