U.S. leaders start talks to avert government shutdown after Trump backs off threat

The U.S. Senate's top Republican and Democratic leaders began negotiating Tuesday after the White House indicated President Donald Trump does not want a federal government shutdown over his demand for $5 billion US for the border wall with Mexico.

First signs of movement after days of impasse as clock ticks down toward Friday funding deadline

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders talks with reporters outside the White House Tuesday. She told Fox News: 'At the end of the day, we don't want to shut down the government. We want to shut down the border from illegal immigration.' (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

The U.S. Senate's top Republican and Democratic leaders began negotiating Tuesday after the White House indicated President Donald Trump does not want a federal government shutdown over his demand for $5 billion US for the border wall with Mexico.

During a meeting on Capitol Hill, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell proposed $1.6 billion for border fencing, as outlined in a bipartisan Senate bill, plus an additional $1 billion that Trump could use on the border, according to a senior Democratic aide unauthorized to speak about the private meeting.

Democrats are likely to reject that, the aide said, characterizing the additional $1 billion as a "slush fund."

But the meeting between the top leaders, after the White House's willingness to back down from Trump's $5-billion demand, offered the first signs of a movement after days of impasse as the clock ticks down toward Friday's funding deadline.

800,000 workers could be furloughed

Without a resolution, more than 800,000 government workers could be furloughed or sent to work without pay, disrupting government operations days before the Christmas holiday.

Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called it a "good sign" that the White House appeared to be backing off its demands.

U.S. House Speaker designate Nancy Pelosi, left, speaks with Vice-President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump as they meet with her and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, right, in the Oval Office at the White House Dec. 11. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer have proposed $1.3 billion. That money would not be for a wall, but for border fencing.

As she entered a meeting in Schumer's office, Pelosi said the "slush fund" is not acceptable. "What they might want to do with that one billion dollars is problematic," Pelosi told reporters.

"Right now, what they've offered, we have not accepted."

'We don't want to shut down the government'

The White House showed a willingness to budge earlier Tuesday as it became apparent the president does not have support in Congress for funding the wall at the $5-billion level he wants.

While Trump said last week he would be "proud" to have a shutdown over the wall funding, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday said are "other ways" to secure the $5 billion that he wants.

"At the end of the day, we don't want to shut down the government," Sanders said on Fox News. "We want to shut down the border from illegal immigration."

Sanders pointed to one bill, likely referring to the Senate's bipartisan appropriation measure for the Department of Homeland Security, which provides $26 billion, including $1.6 billion for fencing and other barriers. It was approved by the committee in the summer on a bipartisan vote.

Potential sources of funds unclear

"That's something that we would be able to support," she said, as long as it's coupled with other funding, such as using defence money on border security.

What other funds could be tapped to satisfy the president's demand remains unclear. Asked about using military funds, Sanders said, "There's certainly a number of different funding sources that we've identified that we can use that we can couple with the money that would be given through Congressional appropriations that would help us get to that $5 billion that the president needs in order to protect our borders."

The Capitol is seen at twilight in Washington Monday. Government shutdowns have become increasingly common in the U.S. capital. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

The fight over Trump's border wall has brought Congress to a familiar standoff, this time just days before Christmas.

It wasn't always like this, with Congress and the White House at a crisis over government funding. The House and Senate used to pass annual appropriation bills, and the president signed them into law. But in recent years the shutdown scenario has become routine.

Friday night

A partial shutdown that could occur at midnight Friday risks disrupting government operations and leaving hundreds of thousands of federal employees furloughed or working without pay over the holiday season. Costs would be likely in the billions of dollars.

Trump was meeting with his team and getting regular updates, Sanders said. Trump has also tweeted to keep up the pressure.

Exiting a Senate Republican leadership meeting late Monday, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said, "It looks like it probably is going to have to build for a few days here before there's a solution."

It's unclear how many House Republicans, with just a few weeks left in the majority before relinquishing power to House Democrats, will even show up midweek for possible votes. Speaker Paul Ryan's office had no update. Many Republicans say it's up to Trump and Democrats to cut a deal.

800,000 government workers

McConnell and Trump talk most days, but the senator's spokesperson would not confirm if they spoke Monday about a plan. McConnell opened the chamber hoping for a "bipartisan collaborative spirit" that would enable Congress to finish its work.

"We need to make a substantial investment in the integrity of our border," McConnell said. "And we need to close out the year's appropriation process."

Meanwhile, more than 800,000 government workers are preparing for the uncertainty ahead.

The dispute could affect nine of 15 cabinet-level departments and dozens of agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Interior, Agriculture, State and Justice, as well as National Parks and Forests.

About half the workers would be forced to continue working without immediate pay. Others would be sent home. Congress often approves their pay retroactively, even if they were ordered to stay home.

President Trump still doesn't have a plan to keep the government open. No threat or temper tantrum will get the president his wall.- Sen. Chuck Schumer

"Our members are asking how they are supposed to pay for rent, food, and gas if they are required to work without a paycheque," said a statement from J. David Cox, Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the large federal worker union. "The holiday season makes these inquiries especially heart-wrenching."

Many agencies, including the Pentagon and the departments of Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services, are already funded for the year and will continue to operate as usual, regardless of whether Congress and the president reach an agreement this week.

Congress already approved funding this year for about 75 per cent of the government's discretionary account for the budget year that began Oct. 1.

The U.S. Postal Service, busy delivering packages for the holiday season, wouldn't be affected by any government shutdown because it's an independent agency.