Donald Trump is weighing up using billions in disaster relief funds to pay for his border wall as part of a national emergency declaration, diverting cash from areas destroyed by storms and fires.
It’s crunch time for the US government, as the shutdown on Friday marked the record for the longest of all time, overtaking a 21-day closure under Bill Clinton in 1996.
The 800,000 federal workers on leave without pay or working without pay since December 22 missed their first pay cheques today, and the pain is about to get much worse as important services remain on hold.
The President upped the ante on Twitter a day after his visit to McAllen, Texas, describing the situation on the US-Mexico border as “a far worse situation than almost anyone would understand, an invasion!”
A congressional official said the White House has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to look through $US13.9 billion ($A19.3 billion) earmarked last year for disaster response to see what could be diverted to a border wall.
The money could come from crisis-plagued Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas and California, potentially under a national emergency declaration that would enable the President to bypass Congress and redirect defence department resources to building his wall on the US-Mexico border.
Puerto Rican officials said the idea was “unacceptable”, with the island still recovering from last year’s Category 4 Hurricane Maria, which caused more than $100 billion in damage.
Governor Ricardo Rossello said the southern border wall should not be funded “on the pain and suffering” of US citizens who have faced tragedy after natural disasters.
Mr Trump on Thursday slammed California’s efforts to deal with the impact of forest fires, tweeting that he would stop supplying money to the state until he was convinced it was correctly handling the crisis.
Asked whether he would declare a national emergency, Mr Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity: “Now if we don’t make a deal with Congress, most likely I will do that.
“I would actually say I would. I can’t imagine any reason why not because I’m allowed to do it. The law is 100 per cent on my side.”
He is likely to face a series of court challenges if he attempts to do so, with even some Republicans against the idea of using defence department funds for the wall.
And a declaration of a national emergency would not necessarily mean the reopening of the government.
The President, meanwhile, still maintains that “Mexico will pay for the wall”, tweeting that the US-Mexico-Canada trade deal will “pay for the wall many times over” — although benefits will go to businesses rather than the government.
Government workers shared $0 pay slips on social media on Friday, with Saturday set to see the shutdown break the record for the longest of all time.
Life in America is slowing to a crawl, with nine of 15 government departments closed, along with a slew of agencies.
Many national parks are closed to tourists after hygiene and safety concerns, airports are experiencing major delays and courts — including those that deal with immigration applications — are closed.
Most employees at NASA and the Inland Revenue Service have not returned to work. Small businesses are hurting, with farmers not receiving vital subsidies and manufacturers lacking key information on the price of materials. Further health concerns have been raised with food safety inspectors off work.
Even the FBI has now written to the US government begging for a return to normal operations.
And matters could worsen — food assistance for low-income pregnant women and young families is only funded until the end of Janaruy. Food stamps are only funded until the end of February. With the President cancelling a trip to Davos, Switzerland s`cheduled for January 21, no one is quite sure how long the stand-off will continue.
The government cannot reopen until Congress agrees on funding bills, and the economic effects are about to start hurting. The Republicans will not sign off without $US5.7 billion ($A8 billion) for the wall included, while the Democrats are only willing to agree to $US1.3 billion ($A1.8 billion) for border security, including a fence.
Nikko Asset Management’s chief global strategist John Vail said the shutdown today became more serious for the economy, as pay cheques are missed and “important functions of the government stall”.
He said the shutdown was unlikely to last much longer, with neither side willing to take the blame, but “the dysfunction of the political process will not be entirely forgotten by the markets and fear of further battles will be heightened.”
Government workers struggling to pay rent or put food on the table are applying for unemployment benefit, looking for new jobs and even setting up GoFundMe pages.
The Senate has approved a bill to provide back pay to federal employees, which needs to be approved by the House of Representatives, but thousands of contract workers on unpaid leave many never recoup their losses.
Mr Trump said this week that government workers will “get their money”, as he insisted he could relate to their struggles but believed they supported his position.
Protests flared across America on Thursday, with federal workers demonstrating in Washington, DC, and Mr Trump’s supporters and opponents gathering in Texas, where he visited the border.
The President used the trip to expand on the dark picture he painted in his televised Tuesday night Oval Office address to the nation. He warned of a “national security and humanitarian crisis” at the wall, suggesting criminals and murderers were illegally flooding over the border, placing a strain on jobs and resources and bringing vast quantities of drugs into the US.
These claims have been shown to be distorted and exaggerated, but Mr Trump is unwilling to budge on what was a key campaign promise.
He this week declared he would be open to building a “steel barrier”, as opposed to a concrete one, but Democrats maintained that such a structure would be expensive, unnecessary and even “immoral”.
There was talk of creating an agreement that included protection for so-called “Dreamers” who arrived in the US illegally as children — but the President vetoed the idea.
The House of Representatives passed two bills on Thursday to reopen shuttered parts of the government including the Treasury, while negotiations continue. But Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said he would not put up a bill that Mr Trump did not support.
— With wires