WASHINGTON (AFP) – US lawmakers were launching a last-ditch bid yesterday to end a budget impasse before hundreds of thousands of federal workers are forced to start the work week at home with no pay.
The impact of the shutdown that began at midnight on Friday has been largely limited so far, but the effect will be acute if the stalemate runs through today.
Republicans and Democrats have traded bitter recriminations over who is to blame for the failure to pass a stop-gap funding measure by a January 20 deadline, a year to the day since Donald Trump took office as US president.
Highlighting the deep political polarisation, crowds estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands took to the streets of major US cities on Saturday to march against the president and his policies.
Top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell on Saturday set a key vote for a funding measure for 1am today, with both houses of Congress reconvening yesterday.
At the heart of the dispute is the thorny issue of undocumented immigration. Democrats have accused Republicans of poisoning chances of a deal and pandering to Mr Trump’s populist base by refusing to fund a programme that protects 700,000 undocumented immigrants who arrived as children from deportation.
Mr Trump, in return, has said Democrats are “far more concerned with Illegal Immigrants than they are with our great Military or Safety at our dangerous Southern Border”.
The shutdown’s effects meanwhile are set to intensify.
Essential federal services and military activity are continuing, but even active duty troops will not be paid until a deal is reached to reopen the US government.
“We’re just in a holding pattern. We just have to wait and see. It’s scary,” Noelle Joll, a 50-year-old furloughed US government employee, said in Washington.
A deal had appeared likely on Friday afternoon, when Mr Trump – who has touted himself as a master negotiator – seemed to be close to an agreement with Democratic Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer on protecting Dreamers.
But no such compromise was in the language that reached Congress for a stop-gap motion to keep the government open for four more weeks while a final arrangement is discussed. And Republicans failed to win enough Democratic support to bring it to a vote.
Congress reconvened for a rare Saturday session, where leaders of both sides were meant to hammer out their differences to prevent the shutdown from stretching into today. Instead, they traded accusations of responsibility for the shutdown.
Mr Schumer said trying to negotiate with Mr Trump “was like negotiating with Jell-O”.
“It’s impossible to negotiate with a constantly moving target,” he said. “President Trump is so mercurial it’s been impossible to get him to agree to anything.”
Meanwhile, Mr McConnell said Mr Schumer “took the extraordinary step” of preventing the legislation from passing and thus “plunging the country into this totally avoidable mess.”
As US lawmakers wrangled over government funding, protesters turned out in cities including Los Angeles, New York and Washington to express their opposition to Mr Trump, and their support for women’s rights. Protestors hoisted placards with messages including “Fight like a girl” and “A woman’s place is in the White House” and “Elect a clown, expect a circus.”