US shutdown assured as senator holds up spending bill

09 February 2018 - 07:17 By afp
Hallways were quiet inside the U.S. Capitol as debate in the Senate stretches on February 8, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Hallways were quiet inside the U.S. Capitol as debate in the Senate stretches on February 8, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Image: CHIP SOMODEVILLA / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP

The US government on Thursday was assured of careening into its second shutdown in three weeks beginning at midnight after the Senate adjourned when a conservative lawmaker blocked a vote on a far-reaching budget deal.

The upper chamber of Congress closed up shop late Thursday and scheduled a reopening for a new session at 12:01 am (0501 GMT) Friday, when it will launch a new effort to pass the bill to extend government funding.

The Senate was expected to schedule a vote on the measure at 1:00 am and, if it passes, send it to the House of Representatives and then on to President Donald Trump for his signature as early as Friday, but his administration was already preparing for a shutdown.

The White House's Office of Management and Budget "is currently preparing for a lapse in appropriations," an OMB official said on condition of anonymity, calling on lawmakers to get the measure to Trump's desk "without delay."

The bill, which extends government funding for six weeks, raises the federal debt ceiling and increases federal spending limits for the next two years, would break the cycle of government funding crises in time for what is set to be a bruising campaign for November's mid-term elections.

The rebellion that simmered among Republicans and Democrats over the bipartisan budget agreement boiled over when dogged Senator Rand Paul refused to allow the Senate to act expeditiously to pass the spending measure.

Moving legislation swiftly through the upper chamber of Congress requires consent by all 100 members, but Paul objected.

The Kentucky lawmaker took the floor to blast the increase in federal spending limits, and in particular the fiscal irresponsibility of his own party.

"I can't in all good honesty and all good faith just look the other way because my party is now complicit in the deficits," Paul said.

'Definition of hypocrisy'

"If you're against president (Barack) Obama's deficits, but you're for the Republican deficits, isn't that the very definition of hypocrisy?" he boomed, adding that he wants his fellow lawmakers "to feel uncomfortable" over the impasse.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer warned that time was running short.

"We're in risky territory here," he said.

Senate rules dictate that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can declare a new session at midnight at the earliest, then hold a procedural vote on the spending bill one hour into the new day. A final vote would follow.

A McConnell lieutenant, Senator John Cornyn, took the floor late Thursday, and in a tense exchange with Paul asked for consent to move the vote up to 10:30 pm, then 11:00, 11:30 and midnight, in an effort to avoid or at least minimize the shutdown.

Paul objected to each request.

"I don't know why we are basically burning time here," an exasperated Cornyn said. "We are in an emergency situation."

If passed early Friday, the bill would then head to the House of Representatives. If it clears Congress and gets signed by Trump, who supports the measure, it could result in only a brief closure of government operations.

But the deal's fate in the House is far from certain.

Fiscal conservatives in the lower chamber may join with Paul in balking at adding billions of dollars to the national debt two months after passing a $1.5 trillion tax cut package.

And liberal stalwarts including top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi were also in revolt because the deal does nothing to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation.

$300 billion more

House Speaker Paul Ryan appeared to shrug off concerns that several Republicans as well as Democrats might oppose the deal.

"I think we're going to be fine," he said in a radio interview about the looming vote.

The temporary spending bill under consideration incorporates the major budget deal reached between Senate leaders on both sides of the political aisle.

That agreement includes a $300 billion increase to both military and non-military spending limits for this year and 2019, and raises the debt until March 1 next year.

It also provides a massive $90 billion disaster relief package and funding to address the nationwide opioid abuse crisis.

Democrats have sought to link the federal funding debate to a permanent solution for hundreds of thousands of "Dreamer" immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.

Dreamers were shielded from deportation under the Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). But Trump ended the program last September, setting March 5 as a deadline for resolving the issue.

The White House's current proposal -- one that would put 1.8 million immigrants on a path to citizenship, but also boost border security, and dramatically curtail legal immigration -- has been panned by Democrats.

Several bipartisan efforts have stalled.

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