Shutdown risk remains amid elusive deal

Sensible call: Schumer speaks to reporters in Washington. The Senate majority leader asked senators to keep their schedules flexible so they can work on avoiding a lapse in federal funding that would partially kick in on Saturday. — AP

WASHINGTON: Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer says congressional efforts to put together a spending package fell short over the weekend, leaving the United States to “once again face the spectre of a harmful and unnecessary government shutdown” starting March 2.

“While we had hoped to have legislation ready this weekend that would give ample time for members to review the text, it is clear now that House Republicans need more time to sort themselves out,” Schumer said in a letter to colleagues on Sunday.

He asked senators to keep their schedules flexible so they can work on avoiding a lapse in federal funding that would partially kick in on Saturday.

A deal on appropriations bills, if it happens, would ease the chance of a damaging closure of the US government.

But it would create political headaches for Republican leaders among conservatives who have demanded the threat of a shutdown be used to force President Joe Biden to change US border and immigration policies.

GOP congressional leaders have instead chosen to hold up emergency funding for Ukraine to try to force the president’s hand.

At the same time, Johnson has repeatedly signalled that he opposes a shutdown, thinks it’s bad politics and is willing to compromise to get a spending deal.

The immediate goal is to avoid closing the departments of Agriculture, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs and Energy, along with the Food and Drug Administration.

These agencies are funded though a stopgap measure through March 1, while the rest of the US government faces a March 8 deadline.

Schumer blamed “extreme” Republicans and former President Donald Trump’s sway over the party for the deadlock.

He also called on Speaker Mike Johnson to put a Senate-passed emergency national security funding bill to a House vote, and said it would pass “with a large number” of Democratic and Republican supporters.

“Congress has a chance, right now, to ensure Putin is not victorious,” he said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

The second group of bills including the Justice Department and Homeland Security Department will be tougher to negotiate given controversies over Trump’s prosecutions and asylum policies at the US southern border.

Talks on those bills will continue ahead of the March 8 deadline.

If any department is operating under stopgap funding on April 30, then a 1% cut to all agencies is slated to come into effect on that day. That adds pressure to many lawmakers to strike a deal.

Conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus have said they prefer those indiscriminate cuts to full funding bills without policy changes they are demanding.

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers seeking to break the deadlock proposed a US$66.3bil package of foreign aid in mid-February that would also codify a so-called remain-in-Mexico policy for asylum seekers at the US border.

“We believe it’s an act of global security,” Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Pennsylvania who introduced the bill, said on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday. “That’s an investment.” — Bloomberg

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