As US government reopens, lawmakers say shutdowns don’t work

US federal government contractor Yvette Hicks gives her son a kiss goodbye as he heads to school on the 35th day of the partial federal government shutdown in Washington. (Reuters pic)

WASHINGTON: As the US government moved to reopen after a 35-day partial shutdown, some lawmakers on Sunday criticised using the closure of federal agencies as a tool in policy disputes, which President Donald Trump has threatened to do again.

Senior legislators from both parties said the latest shutdown, the 19th since the mid-1970s, was as ineffective as previous ones but much more disruptive as it was the longest in US history.

“Shutdowns are not good leverage in any negotiation,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” urging congressional conferees to tackle border security in the three-week talks launched by last week’s shutdown-ending deal.

Hakeem Jeffries, chairman of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives, said on the same television show that shutdowns were “not legitimate negotiating tactics” in public policy disagreements between two branches of government.

About 800,000 federal workers were furloughed or worked without pay during the shutdown, missing at least two paycheques that officials are now working to make up for.

“We hope that by the end of this week, all the back pay will be made up,” acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Payroll providers vary by agency, he said, so some employees may get paid earlier than others. Payments to contractors, he said, will depend on their contracts.

Democratic Senator Mark Warner and Republican Senator Rob Portman have introduced separate bills to prevent future shutdowns. Prospects for the legislation were unclear, but House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy spoke favourably of them on “Meet the Press.”

Trump retreated on Friday from his demand for funding for a US-Mexico border wall that had caused the closure of about a quarter of the government. He also threatened to resume the shutdown on Feb. 15 if he does not get what he wants.

The president demanded that US$5.7 billion in wall funding be part of any measure to end the shutdown, which started when several agencies ran out of money on Dec. 22 for reasons unrelated to immigration or border security.

Mulvaney said on Sunday he believed Trump is willing to shut down the government again if he does not reach a deal with Congress on border security. “Yeah, actually I think he is,” Mulvaney said on “Face the Nation.”

“He is willing to do whatever it takes to secure the border. He does take this very seriously,” Mulvaney said.

Democrats opposed his demand, triggering a five-week standoff that damaged the economy, hurt many federal workers and tested Americans’ patience with delays to air travel, closures of national parks and other disruptions.

After polls showed Americans increasingly blamed Trump for the situation, the president on Friday signed a measure to fund the government for three weeks as congressional negotiators try to work out a bill to fully fund agencies through Sept. 30.

As a candidate, Trump pledged to build the wall, with Mexico paying for it. Mexico refused and now Trump wants US taxpayers to pay for the barrier, which he sees as key to curbing illegal immigration and illegal drug flows into the country.

Democrats say a wall would be too costly and ineffective.

In addition to threatening another shutdown, Trump said he might declare a national emergency at the border and try to circumvent Congress’s purse-string power by tapping Defence Department funds to pay for wall construction.

Such a step would likely draw a prompt, time-consuming court challenge from congressional Democrats on constitutional ground.

Rubio said on NBC the emergency option was “a terrible idea.” A legal battle would put the administration “at the mercy of a district court somewhere and ultimately an appellate court.”

The senator said it would set a bad precedent. “It doesn’t provide certainty. You could very well wind up in sort of a theatric victory at the front end, and then not getting it done … The best way to do it is to have a law passed.”

The White House held a conference call with Cabinet department financial officers late Friday to discuss the resumption of government operations.

Russell Vought, acting chief of the Office of Management and Budget, told agencies in a memo to reopen “in a prompt and orderly manner.”

Federal workers are owed about US$6 billion in back pay, according to a study released last week.

Meanwhile, it remained unclear when Trump would deliver his State of the Union address, which was postponed during the shutdown. One administration official, who asked not to be named, said on Saturday the speech would likely not occur until February.