US lawmakers have averted a shutdown but face fresh battles over funding for the President’s pet project, writes Catherine Lucey.

Lawmakers in the United States have averted one crisis but appear to be heading full-steam towards a fresh confrontation.

Congress lopsidedly approved a border security compromise yesterday that would avert a second painful government shutdown.

But a new confrontation has been ignited — this time over President Donald Trump's plan to bypass lawmakers and declare a national emergency to siphon billions of dollars from other federal coffers for his wall on the Mexican boundary.

Money in the bill for border barriers, about US$1.4 billion ($2b), is far below the US$5.7b Trump insisted he needed and would finance just a quarter of the more than 300km he wanted. The White House said he'd sign the legislation but act unilaterally to get more, prompting condemnations from Democrats and threats of lawsuits from states and others who might lose federal money or said Trump was abusing his authority.


The uproar over Trump's next move cast an uncertain shadow over what had been a rare display of bipartisanship to address the grinding battle between the White House and lawmakers over border security.

The Senate passed the legislation 83-16, with both parties solidly aboard. The House followed with a 300-128 tally, with Trump's signature planned for today. Trump was to speak today in the Rose Garden about border security, the White House said.

Trump was expected to announce that he will be spending roughly US$8b on border barriers — combining the money approved by Congress with funding he plans to repurpose through executive actions, including a national emergency, said a White House official who was not authorised to speak publicly. The money is expected to come from funds targeted for military construction and counterdrug efforts.

House Democrats overwhelmingly backed the legislation, with only 19 — most of whom were Hispanic — opposed. Just over half of Republicans voted "no". Should Trump change his mind, both chambers' margins were above the two-thirds majorities needed to override presidential vetoes.

Lawmakers, however, sometimes rally behind presidents of the same party in such battles.

Lawmakers exuded relief that the agreement had averted a fresh closure of federal agencies just three weeks after a record-setting 35-day partial shutdown that drew an unambiguous thumbs-down from the public. But in announcing that Trump would sign the accord, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also said he'd take "other executive action, including a national emergency".

In an unusual joint statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, both Democrats, said such a declaration would be "a lawless act, a gross abuse of the power of the presidency and a desperate attempt to distract" from Trump's failure to force Mexico to pay for the wall, as he's promised for years.

"Congress will defend our constitutional authorities," they said. They declined to say whether that meant lawsuits or votes on resolutions to prevent Trump from unilaterally shifting money to wall-building, with aides saying they'd wait to see what he does.

Democratic state attorneys general said they'd consider legal action to block Trump. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told the President on Twitter that "we'll see you in court" if he makes the declaration.

Despite widespread opposition in Congress to proclaiming an emergency, including by some Republicans, Trump is under pressure to act unilaterally to soothe his conservative base and avoid looking like he's lost his wall battle.

The abrupt announcement of Trump's plans came amid rumblings that the volatile president — who'd strongly hinted he'd sign the agreement but wasn't definitive — was shifting toward rejecting it. That would have infused fresh chaos into a fight both parties are desperate to leave behind, a thought that drove some lawmakers to ask for heavenly help.

"Let's all pray that the President will have wisdom to sign the bill so the government doesn't shut down," Republican Senator Charles Grassley said as yesterday's Senate session opened.

Moments before Huckabee Sanders spoke at the White House, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor to announce Trump's decisions to sign the bill and declare an emergency.

Republican Senator John Cornyn told reporters there were two hours of phone calls between McConnell and the White House before there were assurances that Trump would sign.

McConnell argued that the bill delivered victories for Trump over Pelosi. These included overcoming her pledge to not fund the wall at all and rejecting a Democratic proposal for numerical limits on detaining some immigrants, said a Republican speaking on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

In a surprising development, McConnell said he would support Trump's emergency declaration, a turnabout for the Kentucky Republican, who like many lawmakers had opposed such action.

"Let's all pray that the President will have wisdom to sign the bill so the government doesn't shut down.", says Charles Grassley.

Democrats say there is no border crisis and Trump would be using a declaration simply to sidestep Congress. Some Republicans warn that future Democratic presidents could use his precedent to force spending on their own priorities, like gun control. GOP critics included Senator Susan Collins, who said emergency declarations are for "major natural disasters or catastrophic events" and said its use would be of "dubious constitutionality".

White House staff and congressional Republicans have said that besides an emergency, Trump might assert other authorities that could conceivably put him within reach of billions of dollars. The money could come from funds targeted for military construction, disaster relief and counterdrug efforts.

Congressional aides say there is US$21b for military construction that Trump could use if he declares a national emergency. By law, the money must be used to support US armed forces, they say.The Defence Department declined to provide details on available money.

With many of the Democrats' liberal base voters adamantly against Trump's aggressive attempts to curb immigration, four declared presidential hopefuls opposed the bill in the Senate: Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. Amy Klobuchar voted for it, as did Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, who is expected to join the field soon.

Notably, the word "wall", the heart of many a chant at Trump campaign events and his rallies as President, is absent from the compromise's 1768-page legislative and descriptive language. "Barriers" and "fencing" are the nouns of choice, a victory for Democrats eager to deny Trump even a rhetorical victory.

The agreement, which took bargainers three weeks to strike, would also squeeze funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, in an attempt to pressure the agency to detain fewer immigrants.

To the dismay of Democrats, however, it would still leave an agency many of them consider abusive holding thousands more immigrants than last year.

The measure contains money for improved surveillance equipment, more customs agents and humanitarian aid for detained immigrants. The overall bill also provides US$330b to finance dozens of federal programmes for the rest of the year, one-fourth of federal agency budgets.

Trump sparked the last shutdown before Christmas after Democrats snubbed his US$5.7b demand for the wall.

The closure denied pay cheques to 800,000 federal workers, hurt contractors and people reliant on government services and was loathed by the public.

With polls showing the public blamed him and GOP lawmakers, Trump folded on January 25 without getting any of the wall funds. His capitulation was a political fiasco for Republicans and handed Pelosi a victory less than a month after Democrats took over the House and confronted Trump with a formidable rival for power.

Trump's descriptions of the wall have fluctuated, at times saying it would cover 1600km of the 3200km boundary. Previous administrations constructed more than 1000km of barriers.

- AP