The US awoke on Saturday to a partial government shutdown, after Democrats in Congress refused to fund Donald Trump’s border wall and the president in turn refused to sign budget legislation. A battle to apportion blame duly followed.
Trump said Americans should “call it a Democrat shutdown” and said it “could be a long stay”. Democratic leaders said the president had thrown “a temper tantrum”.
Federal government operations will be disrupted and hundreds of thousands of workers will either be furloughed – forced to take unpaid time off – or work without payin the run-up to Christmas.
The shutdown is the third in a year, the result of partisan dysfunction notable even by Washington standards. After an even more tumultuous week than usual under Trump, which included the resignation of the defense secretary, James Mattis, stock markets closed well down on Friday after their worst week in a decade.
The shutdown began at midnight. Trump remained at the White House on Saturday, his planned Christmas vacation in Florida on hold. At first he did not tweet, but in a video posted to social media on Friday night, the president said: “Now it’s up to the Senate, and it’s really up to the Democrats, because we need their votes. We’re going to have a shutdown. There’s nothing we can do about that.
“Call it a Democrat shutdown, call it whatever you want. Let’s work together, let’s be bipartisan and let’s get it done. The shutdown hopefully will not last long.”
Democrats pointed out that Trump had previously said he would welcome a shutdown over the border wall question, and would be proud to force one.
Democratic congressional leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi said in a statement: “Instead of honouring his responsibility to the American people, President Trump threw a temper tantrum and convinced House Republicans to push our nation into a destructive Trump shutdown in the middle of the holiday season.
“President Trump has said more than 25 times that he wanted a shutdown and now he has gotten what he wanted.”
The House and Senate reconvened at noon, eastern time. Speaking in the Senate, Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said the onus for coming up with a solution was now on the Democrats and Trump. In their overnight statement, Schumer and Pelosi said that if the shutdown persisted, Democrats would pass legislation to reopen the government when they take over the House in January.
Trump had seemed set to avoid a shutdown, before reversing under pressure from rightwing media and backing a House bill that gave him funding for his border wall, a key campaign promise.
The billionaire Tom Steyer, who has campaigned for Trump’s impeachment and is reported to be considering a run for the presidency, said in a statement on Saturday the shutdown was “just another example of why Trump is unfit for office”.
He added: “We need a president who fights for the American people and improves our country, not one who threatens the jobs and well-being of federal employees to promote his racist agenda.”
The shutdown was reported to be among issues – including market instability, Trump’s surprise announcement of the withdrawal of troops from Syria and the resignation of Mattis – placing pressure on the president’s relations with Republicans in the Senate, a bloc key to fighting off any impeachment effort.
When Trump did tweet on Saturday, shortly after 11am, it was to defend his behaviour and slam media reports.
“I am in the White House, working hard,” the president wrote. “News reports concerning the Shutdown and Syria are mostly FAKE. We are negotiating with the Democrats on desperately needed Border Security (Gangs, Drugs, Human Trafficking & more) but it could be a long stay.”
He subsequently said a “large group concerning border security” would meet for lunch at the White House.
The first lady, Melania Trump, flew to Florida on Friday. The president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, key advisers, remained in Washington.
In a memo to government executives on Friday, the White House budget chief and incoming acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, said the administration was “hopeful that this lapse in appropriations will be of short duration” and that employees should report to work when scheduled to “undertake orderly shutdown activities”.
Those being furloughed include nearly all staff at Nasa and 52,000 workers at the Internal Revenue Service. About eight in 10 employees of the National Park Service will stay home and many parks are expected to close. The Senate passed legislation ensuring workers will receive back pay, which the House seems sure to approve.
Some agencies, including the defense, veterans’ affairs and health and human services departments, were already funded for the year. The US Postal Service, which is busy in the holiday season, will not be affected because it is an independent agency. Social security checks will still be mailed, troops will remain on duty and food inspections will continue.
The FBI, border patrol and coast guard are also still functioning. Transportation Security Administration officers will continue to staff airport checkpoints and air traffic controllers will also remain at work.