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Government begins shutting down as Congress races to agree on short-term spending bill

The U.S. Capitol building. (Bill Clark/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom/Zuma Press/TNS)

The federal government began shutting down early Saturday after a flurry of dramatic, last-minute negotiations failed to end the congressional deadlock over a spending bill before a midnight deadline.

But it may be temporary. Intensive talks were continuing into the night on the Senate floor and a breakthrough was expected.

The negotiations could not stop what became the first government shutdown since 2013, when Republicans led the unpopular 16-day closure in their failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

Earlier in the night, Senate Democrats — joined by some GOP deficit hawks and immigration allies — filibustered a stopgap funding bill approved by the House on Thursday. That sent all sides searching for an alternative deal.

Trump postponed his weekend getaway to Mar-a-Lago as the livelihoods of federal workers hung in the balance. Friday morning, President Donald Trump reached out directly to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, who rushed to the White House for a 90-minute meeting.

After the meeting between the two New Yorkers — which was attended only by the two of them and their chiefs of staff — Schumer, who cut a previous budget deal with Trump in the fall over the strong objections of GOP leaders, said progress had been made but disagreements remained. Trump, in a tweet, called it an “excellent preliminary meeting.”

But according to Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Trump largely washed his hands of the crisis and urged congressional leaders to sort it out themselves. “He wasn’t going to get in the middle of it,” Cornyn said. “It’s not his job. It’s Congress’ job.”

At best, Congress would only be working on another short-term plan to keep agencies open. Whether a shutdown takes place or not, the constant short-term budgeting has caused serious damage, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis warned Friday.

The constant round of short-term measures, known as continuing resolutions, has been “debilitating” for military readiness, Mattis said. “No enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of the U.S. military than the combined effect of the Budget Control Act’s defense spending caps, and nine of the last 10 years operating under continuing resolutions.”

As the day went on, lawmakers scrambled to assign blame. Republicans started characterizing the standoff as the “Schumer Shutdown.” They accused Democratic senators of holding money for government agencies “hostage” as Democrats demanded deportation protections for “Dreamers,” young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children. Protected status for Dreamers, which has allowed them to live and work legally in the U.S., could expire soon because Trump wants to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., decried Democrats for putting the needs of Dreamers ahead of the rest of the country and having “shoehorned” immigration into the funding debate when Congress has at least until March before the DACA program expires. A federal court has ordered the administration to keep DACA intact for now, and although the administration has appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, it has not taken any steps to block it.

Republicans also accused Democrats of hypocrisy, noting that in the past, when Republicans have tried to use shutdown threats, Democrats have said that keeping government agencies funded should take priority over policy disputes.

Democrats say any shutdown would be the Republicans’ fault because they control both houses of Congress and the White House. The DACA dispute could have been resolved last week if Trump had accepted a bipartisan deal negotiated by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., the Democrats point out.

Graham voted against the House-passed bill. So did Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and Jeff Flake of Arizona, undercutting Republican efforts to blame a shutdown on Democrats. Five Democrats voted in favor of the bill.

As Trump tried to forge a compromise on immigration, he also was having to clean up the mess left by vulgar comments he made during an Oval Office meeting last week, when he said he didn’t want immigrants coming to the U.S. from “shithole” countries like those in Africa. That meeting derailed the bipartisan deal.

The House was scheduled to adjourn Friday for a weeklong break. But House leaders warned members to stay in town.

Some lawmakers, including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., had travel plans. His office said McCarthy would not go to Switzerland for the annual confab at Davos if the government shuts down.

Each side is facing strong pressure from core constituencies to stand up to the other.

Dreamer advocates have insisted Democrats should oppose any more money bills until the status of DACA is resolved.

On the Republican side, conservatives have warned that any measure that could be characterized as “amnesty” for people who entered the country illegally would splinter Trump’s support.

In both parties, some strategists believed the public would blame the other side for a shutdown. Others said there may not be much of a voter reaction. The 2013 shutdown, though blamed largely on Republicans and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, hurt Republicans for a time but did little lasting political damage. In 2014, Republicans won control of the Senate for the first time since 2006.

Democrats were counting on polling showing that Americans overwhelmingly support protections for the young Dreamers. “If you want to know the urgency, look into the gallery behind me,” Durbin said Thursday evening, as immigrants filled the visitor section during the debate.

The most recent polling suggests the GOP faces the biggest risk. By a 20-point margin, Americans pinned blame on Trump and Republicans who control Congress, with 28 percent blaming Democrats, according to the Washington Post/ABC News poll released Friday.

The survey said 18 percent would blame both equally. Independent voters would blame Trump and Republicans by a wide margin, the poll found.

A White House official described Trump’s state of mind earlier in the day as “resolute,” confident that Democrats would be blamed, particularly those “auditioning for 2020” and the next presidential election.

“Shutdown coming?” Trump tweeted Friday morning. “We need more Republican victories in 2018!”

Marc Short, Trump’s legislative director, told reporters that Trump was busy calling lawmakers from both parties. “He is leading on this issue,” Short said.

After the meeting with Schumer, Trump also called lawmakers to assure them he would not make another unilateral deal with Democrats, as he did in September.

Trump left a planned gala at Mar-a-Lago on his calendar for Saturday. The political fundraising ball, for which tickets were being sold for six figures, is intended to celebrate his one-year anniversary in office. But his presence there could look bad during a government shutdown.

His planned trip to the global gathering in Davos may also be at risk.

© 2018 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.