Republican Rand Paul, an outspoken fiscal conservative, single-handedly delayed U.S. Senate action for more than seven hours on Thursday on a two-year budget deal meant to avert a government shutdown, objecting to deficit spending in the measure.
As a midnight (0500 GMT Friday) deadline approached for passing a bill to extend federal spending authority and keep the government open, Paul engaged in a on-again, off-again speech on the Senate floor while his Republican colleagues grew increasingly impatient.
The senator from Kentucky, recently recovered from injuries suffered in an assault by a neighbour in November, said the bill would "loot the Treasury. ... The reason I'm here tonight is to put people on the spot. I want them to feel uncomfortable."
As the clock ticked down toward midnight, Washington braced for another possible, if brief shutdown. It would be the second this year, following a three-day partial shutdown in January.
It appeared increasingly unlikely that both the Senate and House of Representatives would vote to approve the bill before the deadline.
The White House's Office of Management and Budget said it was preparing for a shutdown if the bill did not pass on time.
"The Office of Management and Budget is currently preparing for a lapse in appropriations. As we stated earlier today, we support the Bipartisan Budget Act and urge Congress to send it to the president's desk without delay," an OMB official said.
The bill, backed by Republican President Donald Trump, would end for some time the fiscal policy squabbling that has consumed Congress for months. But it would be costly and further underscore a shift under way in Republican thinking.
Once known as the party of fiscal conservatism, the Republicans and Trump in December added an estimated US$1.5 trillion to the national debt with a tax overhaul bill, their only significant legislative achievement of 2017.
The new budget bill would raise military and domestic spending by almost US$300 billion over the next two years. With no offsets in the form of other spending cuts or new tax revenues, that additional spending would be financed by borrowed money.
"I ran for office because I was very critical of President Obama’s trillion-dollar deficits," Paul said.
"Now we have Republicans hand in hand with Democrats offering us trillion-dollar deficits. I can’t in ... good faith, just look the other way because my party is now complicit in the deficits. Really who is to blame? Both parties," he said before ending his remarks at 7 p.m.
The delay gave Paul a chance to speak his peace, but it was not expected to block the bill in the Senate, lawmakers said.
'IT'S GOING TO HAPPEN'
Republican Senator Thom Tillis said Paul could continue to postpone a vote for hours more, but that a vote was coming.
"The outcome is going to be something that my friend from Kentucky will oppose, but it’s going to happen. Because the majority of Republicans believe that funding the government is a pretty important thing to do," Tillis said.
The bill, crafted by Senate leaders on Wednesday, would not only stave off a government shutdown, but extend the government's debt ceiling until March 2019.
That step alone would help reduce uncertainty in U.S. financial markets at a turbulent time. Stocks plunged on Thursday on heavy volume, throwing off course a nearly nine-year bull run. The S&P 500 slumped 3.8 percent.
If the Senate approves it, the bill will next move to the House, where a vote was planned and passage was expected but not assured amid resistance in both parties.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, expressing impatience with Paul, said: "Funding for the government expires in just a few hours. The bipartisan agreement before us funds our troops at the level requested by the Pentagon, addresses the opioid crisis, which is extremely big in the state of Kentucky and around the country, funds our veterans and many other shared priorities.
"Now I understand my friend and colleague from Kentucky does not join the president in supporting the bill. ... But I would argue that it is time to vote."
'DREAMERS' AT ISSUE
The bill is opposed by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi because Republican House leaders will not guarantee her that they will allow a debate later on about taking steps to protect some 700,000 "Dreamer" immigrants from deportation.
The young people were brought illegally to the country as children years ago, mostly from Mexico.
Trump said last September he would end by March 5 a program set up by former Democratic President Barack Obama to protect the Dreamers from deportation, and he urged Congress to act before that date. Senate Republicans have pledged to hold a separate immigration debate this month.
Even without Pelosi, House passage of the budget bill was widely expected because it includes more money for disaster relief, infrastructure and healthcare, which Democrats favour.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who backs the bill, predicted the Republican-controlled House would pass it. "I think we will," he said in a radio interview. "It's going to need bipartisan support. We are going to deliver our share of support."
(Additional reporting by Makini Brice, Katanga Johnson and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Kevin Drawbaugh; Editing by Peter Cooney)