President Donald Trump has announced that he will temporarily reopen the government, ending a 35-day shutdown, the longest in American history.
In a speech to reporters in the White House Rose Garden, the president said that he had agreed to a three-week spending bill that would keep the government open until February 15th while negotiations continue over funding for a border wall with Mexico.
Should lawmakers fail to reach an agreement by that date, Trump said that either the government would close once again or that he would declare a national emergency to force through funding for the wall. (Or as he coyly put it: “I would use the powers afforded to me by the law and the US constitution to address this emergency”.) Should he do so, the move would almost instantly be challenged by the courts.
The deal came as hundreds of thousands of federal government workers were due to miss their second pay cheque. Around 800,000 government workers have been either working unpaid or have been furloughed (sent home without pay) since December, and many have been struggling to make ends meet. By Friday, airports around the US were also reporting delays because of the shortage of air traffic controllers, large numbers of whom have been calling in sick after going for more than a month without pay.
In his speech, Trump said that federal government workers would receive backpay “very quickly or as soon as possible”.
Many government workers will no doubt still be feeling anxious that by next month they could once more find themselves forced to work without pay. In his speech, Trump showed no indication that he was prepared to give ground in his request for a $5.7bn border wall. The Democrats have made clear that they do not want to fund Trump’s wall, calling the project “immoral”, nor do they want to reward the president’s brinkmanship.
Even so, Trump used his speech to repeat his same tired arguments in favour of the wall, describing it as essential to protecting US citizens from drugs, gangs and “criminal illegal aliens”.
“Walls work, they do work!” he said. His wall wouldn’t be a concrete barrier stretching across the entire border, it would be a “smart wall” he said, “made of steel” and with “see-through visibility” and “drones”.
The Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said he hoped to pass legislation to open the government and then send it to the House later on Friday. After that, lawmakers would have three weeks to hash out a homeland security deal and determine the fate of Trump’s wall funding.
At the beginning of his speech announcing the temporary deal, Trump said he had “a very powerful alternative, but I didn’t want to use it at this time”. He was referring to his repeated threats to declare a national emergency in order to divert emergency relief funds to the border wall. Whether Trump really does his have this alternative is dubitable. Should he declare a national emergency over border security, he would almost certainly provoke a constitutional crisis.
For federal government workers – and indeed for the millions of Americans who are reliant on federal assistance – the temporary spending bill offers some respite. But US lawmakers will now be scrambling to avoid what seems worryingly likely: that as things stand it’s likely that in three weeks’ time, the government will shut again.