US President Donald Trump is edging closer to declaring a national emergency to fund his long-promised border wall, as pressure mounts to find an escape hatch from the three-week impasse that has closed parts of the government, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers without pay.
Some 800,000 workers, more than half of them still on the job, were to miss their first paycheck on Friday under the stoppage, and Washington was close to setting a dubious record for the longest government shutdown in the nation’s history.
Those markers — along with growing effects to national parks, food inspections and the economy overall — left some Republicans on Capitol Hill increasingly uncomfortable with Mr Trump’s demands.
Asked about the plight of those going without pay, the president shifted the focus, saying he felt badly “for people that have family members that have been killed” by criminals who came over the border.
Mr Trump visited McAllen, Texas, and the Rio Grande on Thursday to highlight what he calls a crisis of drugs and crime. He said that “if for any reason we don’t get this going” — an agreement with House Democrats who have refused to approve the $5.7 billion ($A7.8bn) he demands for the wall — “I will declare a national emergency.”
Mr Trump was consulting with White House attorneys and allies about using presidential emergency powers to take unilateral action to construct the wall over the objections of Congress. He claimed his lawyers told him the action would withstand legal scrutiny “100 per cent.”
Such a move to bypass Congress’ constitutional control of the nation’s purse strings would spark certain legal challenges and bipartisan cries of executive overreach.
A congressional official said the Trump administration is eyeing billions of dollars of relief funds earmarked for hurricane-pounded Puerto Rico, Texas, California, Florida and other states to be diverted to a border wall as part of the emergency declaration.
The White House has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to comb through its budget, including $13.9 billion ($A19bn) in emergency funds that Congress set aside last year for disaster relief.
The money also funds a variety of projects, mostly flood control to prevent future disasters.
Regardless of where the money is found, an emergency declaration would draw immediate legal challenge from Democrats, who have accused Mr Trump of trying to manufacture a crisis at the southern border to justify his wall. Critics have said the move would be an unconstitutional abuse of emergency powers.
After being criticised for denying he ever said Mexico would directly pay for the wall, Mr Trump tweeted on Friday morning:
WHO IS AFFECTED BY THE SHUTDOWN?
Some 800,000 federal workers did not receive paychecks they were due on Friday.
Cities with economies tied to federal spending are showing signs of strain. One is Huntsville, Alabama, where about 70 federal agencies are located at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal: Hotel rooms are vacant because out-of-town government workers and contractors aren’t coming, restaurants frequented by federal workers are struggling, parking lots are empty and offices at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center are dark.
Federal clean-ups at Superfund sites around the nation have been suspended. Nine of the 15 Cabinet-level departments have not been funded, including Agriculture, Homeland Security, State, Transportation, Interior and Justice. Some iconic National Park facilities are shuttered as are the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo in Washington. Nearly everyone at NASA is being told to stay home, as are most at the Internal Revenue Service, which processes tax returns and issues refunds, though the administration says tax refunds will be issued during the shutdown.
Some 420,000 federal employees whose work is declared essential are working without pay, including the FBI, TSA and other federal law enforcement officers. Some staff at the State and Homeland Security departments are also working without compensation. The Senate approved a bill to provide back pay to federal workers and the House has voted to ensure that all federal employees will be paid retroactively after the partial government shutdown ends. The bill now heads to Mr Trump, who is expected to sign it. Mr Trump said this week that federal workers will “get their money.”
The shutdown has begun to make it harder to assess the health of the economy by delaying or distorting key reports on growth, spending and hiring.
Government data on home construction and retail sales, for example, won’t be released next week because staffers who compile those reports have been furloughed.
The retail sales report provides a snapshot of consumer spending, which fuels more than two-thirds of the economy. With department stores Macy’s and Kohl’s having said that their Christmas sales were weaker than expected, a broader gauge of retail spending would have provided important clarity.
In addition, the next report on the economy’s overall growth, set for Jan. 30, won’t be released if the shutdown remains in effect. Even if the government has fully reopened by then, federal workers won’t likely have had enough time to produce the scheduled report on the nation’s GDP.