The partial government shutdown became the longest closure in the history of the United States when the clock ticked past midnight Friday as President Donald Trump and nervous Republicans scrambled to find a way out of the mess.
A solution could not come soon enough for federal workers, who got pay statements Friday but no pay.
The House of Representatives and Senate voted to give federal workers back pay whenever the federal government reopens and then left town for the weekend, leaving the shutdown on track to become one for the record books once the clock struck midnight and the closure entered its 22nd day.
And while Trump privately considered one dramatic escape route — declaring a national emergency to build the wall without a new stream of cash from Congress — members of his own party were fiercely debating that idea, and the president urged Congress to come up with another solution.
“What we’re not looking to do right now is national emergency,” Trump said. He insisted that he had the authority to do that, adding that he’s “not going to do it so fast” because he’d still prefer to work a deal with Congress.
About 800,000 workers missed paychecks Friday, many receiving blank pay statements. Some posted photos of their empty earnings statements on social media as a rallying cry to end the shutdown, a jarring image that many in the White House feared could turn more voters against the president as he holds out for billions in new wall funding.
With polls showing Trump getting most of the blame for the shutdown, the administration accelerated planning for a possible emergency declaration to try to get around Congress and fund the wall from existing sources of federal revenue. The White House explored diverting money for wall construction from a range of other accounts.
One idea being considered was diverting some of the $13.9 billion allocated to the Army Corps of Engineers after last year’s deadly hurricanes and floods.
That option triggered an outcry from officials in Puerto Rico and some states recovering from natural disasters, and appeared to lose steam on Friday.
California Governor Gavin Newsom called it an “unconscionable” idea to look at using disaster assistance “to pay for an immoral wall that America doesn’t need or want.”
Republican Representative, Kevin Brady of Texas, told reporters after discussions with the White House: “I feel confident disaster relief dollars will not be tapped.” Brady said the administration was looking at the “breadth” of unspent dollars in other government accounts.
Other possibilities included tapping asset forfeiture funds, including money seized by the Department of Justice from drug kingpins, according to a congressional Republican not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
The White House also was eyeing military construction funds, another politically difficult choice because the money would be diverted from a backlog of hundreds of projects at bases around the nation.
Despite Trump’s go-slow message, momentum grew in some corners for some sort of emergency declaration. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who met with the president on Friday, took to Twitter afterwards to urge: “Mr. President, Declare a national emergency NOW. Build a wall NOW.”
Trump has been counselled by outside advisers to move toward a national emergency declaration, but many in the White House are trying to pump the brakes. Senior aide Jared Kushner, who travelled with the president to the Texas border on Thursday, was among those opposed to the declaration, arguing to the president that pursuing a broader immigration deal was a better option.
A person familiar with White House thinking said that in meetings this week, the message was that the administration is in no rush and wants to consider various options. The person was unauthorized to discuss private sessions and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has signalled moral opposition to the wall and vowed to oppose any funding, said the president is seeking to divert attention from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and other White House problems.
“This isn’t a wall between Mexico and the United States. This is a wall between his failures of his administration,” Pelosi told reporters. “This is a big diversion, and he’s a master of diversion.”