As clock ticks, Senate scrambles to avert government shutdown

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate raced to avert a government shutdown on Friday ahead of a midnight deadline with no agreement on funding in sight and both parties squabbling over who is to blame for the impasse.

A bill to fund the federal government through Feb. 16, approved on Thursday night by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, appeared on the verge of collapse in the Senate, where Democratic votes are needed to pass it.

President Donald Trump postponed plans to go to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida and met at the White House with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer to averting the shutdown, a source familiar with the situation said.

“The president is continuing to reach out to them and he will continue to do so throughout the day,” White House legislative liaison Marc Short said of talks with Democrats.

The House planned to recess later on Friday for a scheduled weeklong break but members were warned they could be called back for votes.

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said on Thursday he was ratcheting up the likelihood of a government shutdown from 30 percent to a 50-50 possibility.

Short told reporters at a White House briefing that talks with Democrats on Thursday were productive and “we’re about to go back up to the Hill today to continue those conversations.”

Congress has been struggling for months to agree on long-term government funding levels but has been sidetracked by a dispute on immigration. The federal government is operating on a third temporary funding measure since the new fiscal year began in October.

Markets were keenly focused Friday morning on the budget woes. The U.S. dollar moving to a near three-year low while Wall Street largely played down any fears of the looming possible shutdown and opened higher before falling about 70 points around midday.

BLAME GAME

Leaders of both parties blamed each other for the showdown.

“Now that we’re 13 hours away from a government shutdown that Democrats would initiate and Democrats would own, the craziness of this seems to be dawning on my friend the Democratic leader,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said, referring to Schumer.

Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said Republicans needed to sit down and negotiate and called on House Republicans not to leave town until the crisis was averted.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) arrive at a news conference with Democratic leaders on opposition to government shutdown on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 19, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

“I would beg them, don’t turn your back on your responsibility right here in Washington to work with us, to try to find a way forward,” Durbin said.

Trump, on the eve of the first anniversary of his inauguration, said in a morning tweet that Democrats were holding up a resolution over the immigration issue.

“Democrats are needed if it is to pass in the Senate – but they want illegal immigration and weak borders. Shutdown coming?” he said.

Republicans also control the Senate but with Senator John McCain undergoing cancer treatment at home in Arizona, they will need at least 10 Democrats to reach the 60 votes required to pass a spending bill. In addition to strong Democratic opposition, at least three Republican senators have said they will not back the continuing resolution in its current form.

Republican Senator Mike Rounds, who had earlier said he could not back the bill in current form, on Friday said in a statement that while the measure was “not ideal,” he would support it after being assured that other legislation to adequately fund the U.S. military would be raised soon.

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Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has indicated he was leaning in favor of the stopgap measure. Manchin is one of 10 Democrats up for re-election this year in states Trump won in the 2016 presidential election.

When the government shuts down, which has only happened three times in a meaningful way since 1995, hundreds of thousands of “non-essential” federal workers may be put on furlough, while “essential” employees, dealing with public safety and national security, would keep working.

FUNDING A FEW DAYS

Amid the deadlock, more senators were raising the possibility of merely approving enough new federal funds for a few days. The idea is to put pressure on negotiators to then cut deals on immigration, defense spending and non-defense funding by next week.

But McConnell shot down that plan on Friday. “Let’s fund the government for a full month so we can actually get something done” and negotiate other issues including immigration, he said.

Democrats have demanded that 700,000 young undocumented immigrants be protected from deportation. Those children, known as “Dreamers,” were brought into the United States as children, largely from Mexico and Central America, and given temporary legal status under a program started by former President Barack Obama. Many have been educated in the United States and know no other country.

In September, Trump announced he was ending the program and giving Congress until March 5 to come up with a legislative replacement.

Since then, however, the president has had a series of spats with Congress. Trump and conservatives in Congress have used the Dreamer fight to try to win tough immigration controls, including the president’s promised border wall.

Durbin, who is leading the fight for the Dreamers, told reporters late on Thursday there had been some signs earlier in the day that talks with Republicans were taking a positive turn and a deal could be within reach.

Reporting by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Steve Holland and Amanda Becker; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Trott

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