Time running out for Trump in stalemate on border wall

Time is running out for US President Donald Trump in his showdown with the Democrats over the Mexican wall.

Mr Trump insists he’s prepared to keep part of the US government shut down for more than a year if necessary to get the money he wants for a wall on the border.

But a series of deadlines over the next seven weeks will pile pressure on Mr Trump to do a deal to end a shutdown that could soon become the longest in history.

Hundreds of thousands of workers at nine Cabinet departments and other agencies will soon start to miss pay cheques, and the longer the standoff continues, the more consequences Mr Trump and Congress will face.

Courts will close, rubbish will not be collected in National Parks and eagerly anticipated tax refunds will not be paid.

Later in the year, unrelated issues will compound the shutdown’s problems – the US debt limit will need to be increased, and Congress will have to strike a deal with Mr Trump to prevent steep, automatic cuts in federal spending.

Mr Trump said at a news conference on Friday that “I’m very proud of what I’m doing” and invited reporters to call it “the Schumer or the Pelosi or the Trump shutdown”, referring to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, the new House speaker.

“Doesn’t make any difference to me. Just words,” he said.

Vice-president Mike Pence and other administration officials, with senior Congressional aides, produced no breakthroughs as Democrats and Republicans remained far apart in their demands. No further meetings of the group are scheduled.

This Friday about 800,000 federal workers on furlough, or working without pay, will miss their first pay cheque. That milestone will significantly escalate the political pain of the shutdown. While federal workers are not allowed to strike, many can be expected to eventually walk off the job and go work elsewhere – a challenge for maintaining services like the TSA, that is essential for air travel.

The longest shutdown on record was in 1995. The government was closed for 21 days because then-president Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans, in charge of both chambers for the first time in more than 40 years, couldn’t agree on a spending plan.

Mr Trump is scheduled to travel to Davos, Switzerland, to address global political and business leaders at the World Economic Forum, and he may have to do so while the self-styled deal-maker can’t get his own government re-opened.

On January 29, Mr Trump will give his second State of the Union address in the House chamber – with Ms Pelosi sitting behind him.

The backdrop of a government shutdown would cast a pall on what is usually a highlight of the year for any president.

“He doesn’t like getting upstaged,” said Doug Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum and former director of the Congressional Budget Office. He thinks this date is the first important milestone for the president.

If history is any guide, taxpayers could see their refunds from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) held hostage if the shutdown extends into the filing season at the end of the month and into February.

In previous shutdown contingency plans, the IRS would accept tax returns, but would be prohibited from issuing refunds, which averaged about $2,899 (€2,527) per cheque in 2018.

The agency has yet to release an updated version of its shutdown plan during a filing season, but will likely do so in the coming days.

Mr Holtz-Eakin said there should be considerable overlap between Mr Trump’s voter base and the kind of Americans who seek – and need – early tax refunds. “That’s why it matters so much,” he said.

With extraordinary measures, the US government could likely continue normal operations into the summer.

But March 1 becomes another pressure point for the impasse to be resolved, and the longer a shutdown continues, the more likely other budget items – like a deal to prevent automatic spending cuts in 2020 – get wrapped into the talks.

The Census Bureau is shuttered, preventing work on the decennial count of every American – data crucial to allocating federal spending and redrawing congressional districts.

A shutdown hurts the Trump administration’s ability to conduct the census on its own terms.

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