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U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for a signing ceremony for H.R. 2, the "Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018" in Washington, U.S., December 20, 2018. Photo by Jim Young/Reuters

Shutdown expected to drag into Christmas as talks continue

WASHINGTON — The partial federal shutdown was expected to drag into Christmas as President Donald Trump and congressional leaders remained stuck in a standoff over his border wall with Mexico with no breakthrough Saturday.

Vice President Mike Pence arrived on Capitol Hill with a counter-offer to Democrats after the two sides traded offers in recent days. At the White House, Trump heard mixed messages during a lunch with conservative lawmakers; some wanted him to fight for the wall, others preferred to get the government re-opened. The Senate, which had gaveled in with the House for a rare weekend session, adjourned until Christmas Eve, but won’t return for a full session until Dec. 27.

Even a temporary measure to keep government running for a few days while negotiations continued seemed out of reach.

“Listen, anything can happen,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters after he closed the session.

But the situation seemed less hopeful for a resolution. The Republican chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, said a quick end to the shutdown was “not probable.”

“I don’t think it’s imminent we’re going to reach a deal,” Shelby told reporters after he ushered Pence through the halls for meetings. “I wish we could.”

Trump was demanding $5 billion for a wall, but congressional Democrats were refusing to accede in a stalemate that provided a chaotic coda for Republicans in the waning days of their two-year reign controlling government.

The president jettisoned his Florida holiday getaway to Mar-a-Lago, tweeting, “I am in the White House, working hard.” Trump was hosting a lunch with conservative lawmakers, including House Freedom Caucus chiefs Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio, and several senators, among them Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Absent from the guest list were GOP leaders or any Democrats.

The president also acknowledged in a tweet it could be “a long stay.”

Talks continued between Democrats and the White House. For the second day in a row, Vice President Mike Pence shuttled over to the Capitol to work on a deal. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York met with Pence at the request of the White House, according to Schumer’s office.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he hoped an agreement could be reached “sooner rather than later.”

McConnell said any deal to reopen government would require Democratic support for passage and the president’s signature. “That’s what’s needed.”

Schumer said the shutdown could end immediately if Trump simply dropped his demand for money that was the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Trump had pledged that Mexico would pay for the wall; Mexico has refused.

“If you want to open the government, you must abandon the wall,” Schumer said.

But Trump, digging in, tweeted about “the crisis of illegal activity” at American’s southern border is “real and will not stop until we build a great Steel Barrier or Wall.”

Democrats said they are open to other proposals that don’t include the wall, which Schumer said is too costly and unpopular. They have offered to keep spending at existing levels of $1.3 billion for border fencing and other security.

The impasse blocks money for nine of 15 Cabinet-level departments and dozens of agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Interior, Agriculture, State and Justice.

The disruption affects many government operations and the routines of 800,000 federal employees. Roughly 420,000 workers were deemed essential and will work unpaid just days before Christmas. An additional 380,000 will be furloughed, meaning they will stay home without pay.

Federal employees already were granted an extra day of vacation on Monday, Christmas Eve, thanks to an executive order that Trump signed this past week. The Senate passed legislation ensuring that workers will receive back pay. The House seemed sure to follow suit.

Late Friday, Pence, Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney left the Capitol late after hours of bargaining with congressional leaders produced no apparent compromise.

Mulvaney sent agency heads a memorandum telling them to “execute plans for an orderly shutdown.” He wrote that administration officials were “hopeful that this lapse in appropriations will be of short duration” — an expectation that was widely shared.
Those being furloughed include nearly everyone at NASA and 52,000 workers at the Internal Revenue Service. About 8 in 10 employees of the National Park Service were to stay home; many parks were expected to close.

Some agencies, including the Pentagon and the departments of Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services, were already funded and will operate as usual.

The U.S. Postal Service, busy delivering packages for the holiday season, will not be affected because it’s an independent agency. Social Security checks will be mailed, troops will remain on duty and food inspections will continue.

Also still functioning will be the FBI, the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard. Transportation Security Administration officers will continue to staff airport checkpoints and air traffic controllers will be on the job.

Trump has savored the prospect of a shutdown over the wall for months. Last week he said he would be “proud” to close down the government, and on Friday said he was “totally prepared for a very long” closure. Many of Congress’ most conservative Republicans welcomed such a confrontation, but most GOP lawmakers have wanted to avoid one because polling shows the public opposes the wall and a shutdown over it.

Initial Republican reaction to the shutdown was muted. Among the few GOP lawmakers who issued statements as it began were Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who expressed disappointment at the lack of a deal, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. “This is a complete failure of negotiations and a success for no one,” Alexander said.

Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leaders, said in a statement that Trump “threw a temper tantrum and convinced House Republicans to push our nation into a destructive Trump Shutdown in the middle of the holiday season.”

Trump had made clear last week that he would not blame Democrats for any closure. Now, he and his GOP allies have spent the past few days saying Democrats, who take control of the House on Jan. 3, bear responsibility.

Senators had approved a bipartisan deal earlier in the week to keep the government open into February and provide $1.3 billion for border security projects, but not the wall. But the House rebelled and approved a package temporarily financing the government but also setting aside $5.7 billion for the border wall.

A test vote in the Senate on Friday showed that Republicans lacked the 60 votes needed to advance the House plan.

Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Mary Clare Jalonick and Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.

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