Shippers seek alternatives for oil as crews work toward plugging Keystone leak

Oil spilled from a section of the Keystone pipeline is seen in Walsh County, North Dakota, U.S., October 30, 2019. Taylor DeVries/North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality/Handout via REUTERS

Shippers seek alternatives for oil as crews work toward plugging Keystone leak
By Laila Kearney and Rod Nickel

NEW YORK/WINNIPEG (Reuters) – Cleanup crews in Walsh County, North Dakota, are working toward plugging the Keystone pipeline after a more than 9,000-barrel oil leak this week, a state official said Friday, while crude shippers are searching for alternative means of transport.

The shutdown caused by the spill threatens a large amount of regular supply of heavy Canadian crude to the United States. Canada is the biggest foreign provider of oil to the United States, with exports to the U.S. averaging about 3.6 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2018, according to the federal Canada Energy Regulator.

The 590,000-barrel bpd Keystone system, owned by TC Energy Corp, is a key artery for Canadian heavy crude, imported by United States for blending with other oils to be refined into gasoline, diesel and other fuels.

“When something like (a shutdown) happens, it’s all hands on deck for what you do to keep barrels flowing,” Chief Executive Rich Kruger of Exxon-owned Imperial Oil <IMO.TO> said, on a quarterly conference call on Friday. “Not knowing what the situation is, how long it may be offline.”

Imperial, which owns contracted space on Keystone, is looking into shipping alternatives for the short and long term, Kruger said.

TC Energy was not immediately available for comment.

Keystone’s closure has forced TC Energy’s Marketlink pipeline from the Cushing, Oklahoma storage hub to Nederland, Texas, to reduce rates.

About 60 percent of Canada’s U.S. exports go to the Midwest.

The cause of the leak is unknown. The spill, first detected by TC Energy on Tuesday night, occurred near a TC Energy pumping station, and saturated an area about half the size of a football field, the company and state officials said.

Karl Rockeman, director of the North Dakota Division of Water Quality, whose department is overseeing the cleanup, said crews were focused on reaching the leak to prevent “any further oil that may be sitting in the pipeline from being released.”

Clean-up efforts remained focused on vacuuming up oil, before excavating the underground pipe, said Walsh County emergency response manager Brent Nelson.

The leak took place in a rural area close to the small city of Edinburg in the northeastern part of the state. The nearest home is about three-quarters of a mile away, Nelson said.

(Reporting by Laila Kearney and Rod Nickel; Editing by David Gaffen and Steve Orlofsky)

Trump to lawmakers: Don’t waste your time, deal needs wall

U.S. President Donald Trump announces a deal to end the partial government shutdown as he speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With little time to craft a deal over funding security operations on the U.S.-Mexico border, a bipartisan group of lawmakers was to meet in a public work-session on Wednesday even as President Donald Trump maintained a hard line on constructing a massive wall.

Congressional negotiators are up against a Feb. 15 deadline for agreeing on funding through Sept. 30 for several federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and its border operations.

Realistically, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have about a week to settle differences and still give the full House of Representatives and Senate time to debate and vote on any deal.

A 35-day partial shutdown of agencies was triggered on Dec. 22 when Trump refused to sign funding bills that did not contain $5.7 billion for a wall along the southwestern U.S. border.

Faced with steadfast opposition in the Democratic-majority House, Trump relented on Friday, agreeing to re-open federal agencies temporarily without his $5.7 billion request. In return, Congress agreed to a special panel to negotiate a border security deal.

Trump has threatened a resumption of the record-long shutdown if the panel fails to find common ground or produces a plan he does not like.

In a tweet on Wednesday, Trump warned: “If the committee of Republicans and Democrats now meeting on Border Security is not discussing or contemplating a Wall or Physical Barrier, they are Wasting their time!”

Physical barriers have long been installed on parts of the border to keep out illegal drugs and undocumented immigrants and more are underway.

It was unclear whether Trump, who views the current arrangement as insufficient, would accept a simple continuation of such installations. Building a wall on the U.S. southern border – with Mexico paying for it – was one of Trump’s most often repeated promises during the 2016 presidential campaign. Mexico has refused to pay for a wall.

Democrats, arguing a border wall is ineffective, say they want a mix of security tools: drones, sensors, scanning devices and fences, along with more border patrol agents.

Wednesday’s committee meeting might be the only public session since behind-the-scenes negotiations are the stage for the real bargaining.

The session is expected to mainly allow the seven Senate negotiators and 10 House negotiators an opportunity to make opening statements. The committee is headed by House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, a Democrat, and Republican Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

With a mix of wall supporters and opponents, it is unclear whether the panel will reach agreement.

Republican Representative Kay Granger was optimistic, telling reporters she and Lowey “have worked together well” over the years.

If Congress denies his request, Trump has threatened to declare a “national emergency” in order to take existing funds appropriated by Congress for other purposes – possibly from the Defense Department, for example – to build his wall.

There is bipartisan opposition in Congress to that plan, which likely would spark legal challenges since the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to appropriate funds and direct their use.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Trott)

Senate plans votes to end shutdown, but solution still far off

A visitor walks by the U.S. Capitol on day 32 of a partial government shutdown as it becomes the longest in U.S. history in Washington, U.S., January 22, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young

By Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican-led U.S. Senate planned votes on Thursday for competing proposals to end the partial government shutdown – both of which were likely to fail – as lawmakers and the White House sniped at each other over how to break their monthlong impasse.

Just hours before the Senate was scheduled to vote, there were signs that lawmakers might consider new ideas for ending the 34-day shutdown, which was triggered by Trump’s demand for money to fund his long-promised wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. The shutdown has left hundreds of thousands of government workers furloughed or working without pay.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, told reporters that she was willing to meet face-to-face with Republican President Donald Trump to discuss the issue.

Her comment came one day after she announced that Trump&rsquo;s State of the Union speech in the House chamber, scheduled for Tuesday, would not occur until the shutdown ended, despite the president’s plans to come. Trump, who considered giving the speech at another venue, conceded late on Wednesday and said he would deliver the speech in the House in the “near future.”

Trump wants $5.7 billion for the border barrier, opposed by Democrats, as part of any legislation to fund about a quarter of the federal government.

The longest such shutdown in U.S. history has left 800,000 federal workers, as well as private contractors, without pay and struggling to make ends meet, with the effects on government services and the economy reverberating nationwide.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Thursday urged furloughed federal workers to seek loans to pay their bills while adding in a CNBC interview that he couldn’t understand why they were having trouble getting by.

Pelosi denounced the comments.

“Is this the, ‘Let them eat cake’ kind of attitude or ‘Call your father for money?’ or ‘This is character building for you?'” Pelosi asked at a news conference.

She said she did not understand why Ross would make the comment “as hundreds of thousands of men and women are about to miss a second paycheck tomorrow.”

Trump had a response for Pelosi as well.

“Nancy just said she ‘just doesn’t understand why?’ Very simply, without a Wall it all doesn’t work. Our Country has a chance to greatly reduce Crime, Human Trafficking, Gangs and Drugs. Should have been done for decades. We will not Cave!” he said in a tweet.

VOTES PROCEED

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell planned a vote on Thursday afternoon on a Democratic proposal to fund the government for three weeks that does not include wall funding.

Its prospects looked dim in the Republican-majority Senate, although at least one conservative senator reportedly plans to back it. The Democratic-controlled House has passed similar bills but Trump has rejected legislation that does not include the wall funding.

McConnell has previously said he would not consider legislation that Trump did not support. The fact that he is willing to allow a vote suggests he may be trying to persuade lawmakers of both parties to compromise.

Republican Senator Cory Gardner intends to vote for the bill, the Denver Post said, citing the lawmaker’s spokesman. Gardner’s representatives could not be reached for immediately for comment.

McConnell also planned to hold a vote on a separate bill that includes wall funding and a temporary extension of protections for “Dreamers,” hundreds of thousands of people brought to the United States illegally as children, to reflect an offer Trump made on Saturday.

Democrats have dismissed Trump’s offer, saying they would not negotiate on border security before reopening the government and would not trade a temporary extension of the immigrants’ protections in return for a permanent border wall they have called ineffective, costly and immoral.

McConnell’s calculation may be that if both bills fail, Republicans and Democrats would be convinced to seek a deal.

One possibility emerged on Wednesday when House Democratic leaders floated the idea of giving Trump most or all of the money he seeks for security along the Mexican border but that could not be used to build a wall.

Representative James Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, said Democrats could fulfill Trump’s request for $5.7 billion for border security with technological tools such as drones, X-rays and sensors, as well as more border patrol agents.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll last week found more than half of Americans blamed Trump for the shutdown even as he has sought to shift blame to Democrats after saying last month he would be “proud” to close the government for border security.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Roberta Rampton; Writing by Jeff Mason; Editing by Bill Trott)

U.S. State Department recalls furloughed employees amid shutdown

People enter the State Department Building in Washington, U.S., January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department said on Thursday it was calling its furloughed employees back to work next week as it takes steps to pay salaries despite a partial shutdown of the government.

“As a national security agency, it is imperative that the Department of State carries out its mission,” Deputy Under Secretary of State Bill Todd said in a statement posted on the department’s website. “We are best positioned to do so with fully staffed embassies, consulates and domestic offices.”

Todd said the department’s employees would be paid on Feb. 14 for work performed beginning on or after this coming Sunday. The department would review its available funds and “legal authorities” beyond the upcoming pay period to try to cover future payments, he said.

“Although most personnel operations can resume, bureaus and posts are expected to adhere to strict budget constraints with regard to new spending for contracts, travel, and other needs” given a lapse in congressionally appropriated funds, Todd added.

About one-quarter of federal agencies have been shuttered since Dec. 22, with Democratic lawmakers refusing to accede to President Donald Trump’s demands to pay for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Trump is holding out for $5.7 billion for a border wall. Democrats, who took over the U.S. House Representatives this month, have rejected his demands, saying there are cheaper, more effective ways of enhancing border security.

(Reporting by Tim Ahmann; editing by David Alexander and James Dalgleish)

Trump, Democrats dig in over ending government shutdown

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters about border security in the Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Richard Cowan and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump and congressional leaders gathered at the White House on Friday to try to end a 2-week-old partial U.S. government shutdown but all parties were entrenched over his demand for $5 billion to build a wall on the border with Mexico.

About 800,000 federal workers have been unpaid due to the closure of about a quarter of the federal government as Trump withholds his support for new funding until he secures the money for the wall that he promised to construct during his election campaign.

The wall, Trump has argued, is needed to stem the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs over the border. When he ran for president in 2016, Trump vowed Mexico would pay for the wall, which it has refused to do.

Democratic congressional leaders arrived at the White House for the meeting with Trump but it was unclear how much progress might be made.

It is the first showdown between Trump and Democrats since they took over the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday after victories in last November’s elections.

“The president isn’t going to back off,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters before the talks began.

The Senate on Friday adjourned until Tuesday afternoon in a sign that the shutdown would likely not end before then.

Ahead of the meeting, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sought to separate the issue of the wall and government funding and called on Trump and his fellow Republicans in the Senate to reopen agencies as border talks continue.

“The wall and the government shutdown really have nothing to do with each other,” Pelosi, who has rejected any funding for what she has called an “immoral” border wall, said at an event hosted by MSNBC.

About 800,000 federal employees have either been furloughed or are working without pay because of the shutdown.

It is showing signs of straining the country’s immigration system and has been blamed for worsening backlogs in courts and complicating hiring for employers.

Trump continued to promote the wall in tweets to keep the pressure on Democrats on Thursday even as they gained significant power with their takeover of the House at the start of a new Congress.

TRUMP LETTER

Trump sent a letter to all members of Congress on Friday “on the need to secure our borders,” the White House said.

“Absolutely critical to border security and national security is a wall or a physical barrier that prevents entry in the first place,” Trump wrote.

Late on Thursday, the House passed two Democratic bills to immediately reopen government agencies for varying lengths of time, despite a White House veto threat.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has rejected the House effort saying the president would not sign into law, although the Senate last month approved identical legislation.

“We’re in the same place … Any viable compromise will need to carry the endorsement of the president before it receives a vote in either house of Congress,” McConnell said, speaking on the Senate floor Friday morning.

But he may face pressure from within his caucus from vulnerable Republicans up for re-election in 2020.

“We should pass a continuing resolution to get the government back open. The Senate has done it last Congress, we should do it again today,” U.S. Senator Cory Gardner told The Hill on Thursday.

His colleague Susan Collins also called for the Senate to pass the funding bills, while several other Republicans urged an end to the shutdown, the Hill and New York Times reported.

Pelosi on Friday urged McConnell to bring the measures up for a vote. “The president can sign or not but he should never say, ‘I’m not even going to put it on the president’s desk,'” she told MSNBC, noting Congress can pass bills without Trump’s support.

Legislation can become law with a veto-proof majority of lawmakers’ support or if the president does not sign it or veto it within 10 days.

Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday suggested that in exchange for the wall, the White House could work with Democrats on so-called Dreamer immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children – an idea Trump had rejected.

“It’s being talked about,” Pence told Fox News.

Democrats back other border security measures aside from the wall, and their two-bill package passed Thursday includes $1.3 billion for border fencing and $300 million for other border security items such as technology and cameras.

In a Dec. 11 meeting with Pelosi and Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, Trump said he would be “proud” to shut the government over the security issue and would not blame Democrats. He has since said they are responsible.

A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll last week showed that 50 percent of the public blame Trump for the shutdown and 7 percent blame Republican lawmakers, against 32 percent who blame Democrats.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Susan Cornwell and Lisa Lambert; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Bill Trott)

White House calls Democratic plan to end shutdown ‘non-starter’

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Capitol is seen on the first day of a partial federal government shutdown in Washington, U.S., December 22, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo

By Jeff Mason and Amanda Becker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump invited Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress to the White House for a border security briefing on Wednesday, the 12th day of a partial U.S. government shutdown triggered by his demand for $5 billion in border wall funding.

Department of Homeland Security officials will brief the congressional leaders, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said, on the last day that Trump’s fellow Republicans will control both chambers of Congress.

The meeting is set for 3 p.m. (2000 GMT) in the White House Situation Room, generally used for high-level security concerns such as military planning.

Democrats take charge of the House of Representatives from Trump’s fellow Republicans when the new 2019-2020 Congress convenes on Thursday. Led by presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, they have scheduled votes on their first day in power on legislation that would end the shutdown without providing the wall funding Trump wants. Republicans retain control of the Senate.

“The Pelosi plan is a non-starter because it does not fund our homeland security or keep American families safe from human trafficking, drugs, and crime,” Sanders said in a statement late on Tuesday.

Roughly a quarter of the federal government and 800,000 federal employees are affected by a shutdown, which was caused by a lapse in funding for the agencies.

The shutdown, which began on Dec. 22, was precipitated by Trump’s demand as part of any federal funding measure for $5 billion to help build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border that was a centerpiece of his 2016 presidential campaign. The project’s total price tag is estimated at $23 billion.

It was unclear if Wednesday’s meeting, arranged by Trump on Tuesday, would lead to a breakthrough. Democrats oppose the wall and Trump’s funding demand.

Prospects for the two-part Democratic spending package that will be voted upon in the House appear grim in the Senate. The measure sets up the first major battle of the new Congress between House Democrats led by Pelosi and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell has said Senate Republicans will not approve a spending measure Trump does not support.

The visit by Pelosi and Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer would be their first to the White House since their sharp exchange with Trump in the Oval Office on Dec. 11 during which the president told them, “I am proud to shut down the government for border security.” He has since blamed Democrats for the shutdown.

The Democrats’ two-part package includes a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security at current levels through Feb. 8 and provide $1.3 billion for border fencing and $300 million for other border security items including technology and cameras.

The second part of the package would fund the other federal agencies that are now unfunded including the Departments of Agriculture, Interior, Transportation, Commerce and Justice, through Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.

Trump has called the wall crucial to curbing illegal immigration and combating drug trafficking. Democrats disagree, with Pelosi calling the wall immoral, ineffective and expensive. Trump made the border wall a key part of his presidential campaign and said Mexico would pay for it. Mexico has refused.

If they spurn funding bills for departments unrelated to border security, Republicans could be seen as holding those agencies and hundreds of thousands of affected employees hostage to Trump’s desire for a wall, part of his hard-line immigration policies that appeal to his conservative political base.

(Reporting by Amanda Becker, Doina Chiacu and Jeff Mason; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Bill Trott)

Trump threatens U.S. government shutdown over border wall

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday he would allow the federal government to shut down if Democrats do not fund his border wall and back immigration law changes, betting that maintaining a hard line will work in Republicans’ favor in November congressional elections.

However, a disruption in federal government operations could backfire on Trump if voters blame Republicans, who control Congress, for the interruption in services.

“I would be willing to ‘shut down’ government if the Democrats do not give us the votes for Border Security, which includes the Wall! Must get rid of Lottery, Catch &amp; Release etc. and finally go to system of Immigration based on MERIT! We need great people coming into our Country!” Trump said on Twitter.

Americans are divided along party lines on immigration, and 81 percent of Republicans approved Trump’s handling of the issue, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released this month.

The Republican president has threatened a shutdown several times since taking office in 2017 in a bid to get immigration priorities in congressional spending bills, especially funding for a wall along the southern U.S. border. Trump has asked for $25 billion to build the wall.

“I don’t think it would be helpful, so let’s try to avoid it,” Republican Senator Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Congress must agree on a spending measure to fund the government by a Sept. 30 deadline.

Although Republicans control both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, disagreements between moderates and conservatives in the party have impeded a speedy legislative fix.

Standoffs over spending levels and immigration led to a three-day government shutdown, mostly over a weekend, in January and an hours-long shutdown in February.

The House in June rejected an immigration bill favored by conservative Republicans.

The Republican president has made tougher immigration laws a centerpiece of his administration, from the first ill-fated travel ban on people from predominantly Muslim nations to the current battle raging over the separation of illegal immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

A federal judge on Friday urged the U.S. government to focus on finding deported immigrant parents whose children remain in the United States.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Additional reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Safety, verification questions hang over North Korea’s plan to close nuclear site

FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provides guidance with Ri Hong Sop (3rd L) and Hong Sung Mu (L) on a nuclear weapons program in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang September 3, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS/File Photo

By Josh Smith and David Brunnstrom

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Shutting down North Korea’s nuclear test site is trickier than it might seem.

A botched tunnel collapse could spread radioactive debris. Nuclear material might be buried, but accessible enough to be dug up and reused in a weapon. And even if all the testing tunnels are destroyed, North Korean engineers could simply dig a new one if they want to conduct another nuclear test.

Disarmament experts have raised many such scenarios after North Korea said over the weekend that it would use explosives to collapse the tunnels of its Punggye-ri nuclear test site next week.

Pyongyang has publicly invited international media to witness the destruction, but not technical inspectors, leaving disarmament experts and nuclear scientists wondering how effective the plan is – and whether it will be safe.

Recent reports indicate that some areas of the Punggye-ri test site have become unstable after the latest and largest nuclear test in September.

More explosions would be unnecessarily risky, but there are steps North Korea could take to make the shutdown more credible and safe, said Suh Kune-yull, professor of nuclear energy systems engineering at Seoul National University.

“Blowing up isn’t the most ideal way,” Suh said. “It might be less dramatic than an explosion, but filling the tunnel up with concrete, or sand or gravel would be best.”

There is still a considerable amount of radiation being detected at one of the tunnel complexes where most of North Korea’s nuclear tests have taken place, including the latest test of what North Korea said was a fusion bomb, he said.

But underground nuclear test tunnels and shafts are typically designed to be sealed by the nuclear bomb’s blast wave before radioactive material can escape. Some experts noted that North Korea over the course of its six nuclear tests probably learned how to prevent radiation leaks.

“If it’s done well, there is no risk of radiation being released. But the question is, are these tunnels being sealed in a way that they couldn’t again be used?” said Jon Wolfsthal, the director of the Nuclear Crisis Group and a former senior arms control official at the U.S. National Security Council.

“The only risk I see is that we will take the destruction of a couple of tunnels as a physical barrier to the resumption of testing in the future.”

MESSY HISTORY

North Korea’s shutting down its test site could be an effort to mirror other nuclear powers that have ended testing, but hung onto their weapons, analysts say.

Suh said beyond closing tunnels and knocking down buildings, the entire Punggye-ri site will need to be secured to prevent the North Koreans or profiteers from digging up nuclear material that could be reused in weapons or sold on the black market.

Previous efforts to close underground nuclear test sites have sometimes been messy, drawn-out affairs, he said.

In 1999, the United States provided $800,000 to pay for a blast equivalent to 100 tons of dynamite to collapse a tunnel at a former Soviet test site in Kazakhstan.

Known as “Plutonium Mountain,” the Soviet Union’s Semipalatinsk Test Site covered an area roughly the size of Belgium and was the scene of 456 nuclear tests during the Cold War, including at least 340 underground blasts.

Cleaning up and securing that site took 17 years and $150 million, according to a report by Harvard’s Belfer Centre.

France, which performed 13 underground nuclear tests in the Sahara Desert in the 1960s, says it “shut down and dismantled its nuclear test facilities,” and a 2005 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that most of the sites in Algeria show “little residual radioactive material.”

But local people and Algeria’s government said the tests – including the 1962 “Beryl Incident” when radioactive rock and dust escaped from an underground nuclear blast – left a legacy of environmental devastation and health problems that last today.

China, Pakistan, India are also known to have conducted underground nuclear tests. South Africa – which dismantled its entire nascent nuclear weapons program in 1989 – closed down its underground shafts without conducting a test.

The United States, meanwhile, detonated at least 828 nuclear bombs underground at its Nevada Test Site.

The site remains open, although no U.S. nuclear tests have been carried out since 1992.

‘PERMANENT AND IRREVERSIBLE’

Nuclear experts say the shutdown plan is at least an encouraging political gesture ahead of talks with the United States in June.

But they caution it is not necessarily the first step of the “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” of the nuclear program the United States has sought.

The U.S. State Department did not give a specific response when asked whether the United States had asked to send observers to the dismantling of the site or for international monitors to be present.

A spokesman said: “A permanent and irreversible closure that can be inspected and fully accounted for is a key step in the denuclearization of (North Korea). We look forward to learning additional details.”

China – which borders North Korea only about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Punggye-ri – has not publicly said whether it would help dismantle the site or monitor the process.

“To my understanding, the North Korean side has not raised this kind of request to the Chinese side,” a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, the state-backed Global Times ran an editorial saying that abandoning the testing site “would bring huge benefits to the region.”

Many doubt North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will ever fully relinquish his expensive and treasured nuclear weapons, but even if he curtails his program, analysts warn it will be a long process.

“I am concerned that Kim Jong Un may take unilateral actions that are hard to dispute – like closing the test site – and implement them without any observation,” said Sharon Squassoni, a research professor at the Institute for International Science and Technology Policy in Washington. “This would set up a complicated situation wherein North Korea was taking actions that we would normally applaud, but without any verification.”

(Additional reporting by Christine Kim in SEOUL, Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON, and Christian Shepherd in BEIJING; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Gerry Doyle)

Trump threatens to veto spending bill, raising government shutdown risk

The U.S. Capitol building is seen in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2018. REUTERS/ Leah M

By Richard Cowan and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump made a surprising threat to veto Congress’ newly passed $1.3 trillion spending bill, a move that raised the specter of a possible government shutdown ahead of a midnight Friday deadline to keep federal agencies open.

In a tweet on Friday morning Trump said he was displeased about immigration issues in the bill, even though the White House had given assurances on Thursday that he would sign it. Lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives, which both are dominated by Trump’s fellow Republicans, had left Washington after passing the measure.

“I am considering a VETO of the Omnibus Spending Bill based on the fact that the 800,000 plus DACA recipients have been totally abandoned by the Democrats (not even mentioned in Bill) and the BORDER WALL, which is desperately needed for our National Defense, is not fully funded,” Trump wrote.

Trump has sought to make good on his campaign promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and the bill includes $1.6 billion for six month’s of work on the project, although he had sought $25 billion for it. In a tweet on Thursday he had seemed not to have a problem with partial funding because “the rest will be forthcoming.”

Trump also has been at odds with Democrats in Congress over the fate of Dreamer immigrants – those brought to the United States illegally when they were children.

At the White House, many aides were caught by surprise by the veto threat and were scrambling for answers. There was no immediate explanation for what prompted the threat other than Trump’s frequent complaints that he felt Democrats were unwilling to move his way on immigration issues.

Trump appeared to have tweeted from the White House residence, as there is no Marine guard posted outside the door of the West Wing, which is what happens when the president is in the West Wing.

A White House official would say only that “it’s the president’s tweet” and could not answer further questions. Trump is scheduled to leave later in the day for a weekend at his private resort in Palm Beach, Florida.

There was no immediate comment from Republican leaders in Congress.

THREAT OR BLUFF?

As the six-month spending deal was coming together, there were reports Trump had balked at the deal and had to be persuaded by Republican Speaker Paul Ryan to support it.

Only minutes before Trump’s threat, Ryan had tweeted: “Our men and women in uniform have earned a pay raise. That’s why yesterday, we voted to provide the biggest pay raise for our troops in 8 years.”

Conservatives and deficit hawks in Trump’s party had panned the bill because of its spending increases. Some cheered his threat to veto it.

“Please do, Mr. President,” Republican Senator Bob Corker said on Twitter. “I am just down the street and will bring you a pen. The spending levels without any offsets are grotesque, throwing all of our children under the bus.”

Democratic lawmakers said Trump created his own crisis by canceling the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that gives work permits to certain young immigrants and protects them from deportation. The decision is currently tied up in court cases.

Trump had agreed to extend the program if Congress agreed to sweeping changes in immigration laws and provided $25 billion to build the wall and increase border security. Democrats rejected the plan.

“NOW you care about the Dreamers Mr. President?” Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky said on Twitter. “Six months after throwing their lives into chaos? Is this a cruel joke?”

In a hastily arranged news conference on Thursday, Trump’s budget director and top legislative aide insisted he would sign the bill and tried to cast the $1.6 billion in funding for border security as a downpayment on Trump’s wall pledge.

“It does a lot of what we wanted – not everything we wanted – but a lot of what we wanted on immigration,” White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Steve Holland; additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Susan Heavey and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Bill Trott)

Government workers begin shutdown as Senate vote looms

The U.S. Capitol is lit during the second day of a shutdown of the federal government in Washington, U.S., January 21, 2018.

By Amanda Becker and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of federal workers began shutting down operations on Monday with the U.S. government closed and the Senate prepared to try again to restore funding, if only temporarily, and resolve a dispute over immigration.

As government employees prepared for the first weekday since the shutdown began at midnight Friday, U.S. senators were to vote at midday on a funding bill to get the lights back on in Washington and across the government until early February.

Support for the bill was uncertain, after Republicans and Democrats spent all day on Sunday trying to strike a deal, only to go home for the night short of an agreement.

Federal employees received notices on Saturday about whether they were exempt from the shutdown, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said. Depending on their schedules, some were told to stay home or to go to work for up to four hours on Monday to shut their operation, then go home. None will get paid.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said late Sunday that an overnight vote on a measure to fund government operations through Feb. 8 was canceled and would be held at 12 p.m. EST (1700 GMT) on Monday.

Up until Monday, most federal workers were not directly affected by the shutdown that began at midnight on Friday.

The federal Office of Personnel Management said on its website on Sunday night that “federal government operations vary by agency.”

The Department of Defense published a memo on its website detailing who does and does not get paid in a shutdown and saying that civilian employees were on temporary leave, except for those needed to support active-duty troops.

The Department of Interior led by Secretary Ryan Zinke, offered no guidance on its website, which still had a “Happy Holidays from the Zinke Family” video near the top of the site. The department oversees national parks and federal lands.

The State Department website said: “At this time, scheduled passport and visa services in the United States and at our posts overseas will continue during the lapse in appropriations as the situation permits.”

Markets have absorbed the shutdown drama over the last week, and on Monday morning world stocks and U.S. bond markets largely shrugged off Washington’s standoff even as the dollar continued its pullback. U.S. stock futures edged lower.

‘DREAMERS’ DRAMA

The U.S. government has not been shut down since 2013, when about 800,000 federal workers were put on furlough. That impasse prevented passage of a needed funding bill centered on former Democratic President Barack Obama’s healthcare law.

The problem this time focused on immigration policy, principally President Donald Trump’s order last year ending an Obama program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which gave legal protections to “Dreamer” immigrants.

The “Dreamers” are young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children by their parents or other adults, mainly from Mexico and Central America, and who mostly grew up in the United States.

Trump said last year he would end DACA on March 5 and asked Congress to come up with a legislative fix before then to prevent Dreamers from being deported.

Democrats have withheld support for a temporary funding bill to keep the government open over the DACA issue. McConnell extended an olive branch on Sunday, pledging to bring immigration legislation up for debate after Feb. 8 so long as the government remained open.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer objected to the plan and it was unclear whether McConnell’s pledge would be enough for Democrats to support a stopgap funding bill.

Congress failed last year to pass a complete budget by Oct. 1, the beginning of the federal fiscal year, and the government has been operating on a series of three stopgap spending bills.

Republicans control both the House of Representatives and the Senate, where they have a slim 51-49 majority. But most legislation requires 60 Senate votes to pass, giving Democrats leverage.

Trump told a bipartisan Senate working group earlier this month that he would sign whatever DACA legislation was brought to him. The Republican president then rejected a bipartisan measure and negotiations stalled.

McConnell had insisted that the Senate would not move to immigration legislation until it was clear what could earn Trump’s support.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who is involved in bipartisan immigration negotiations, said McConnell’s statements on Sunday indicated there was progress in negotiations and he urged his Democratic colleagues to approve another stopgap bill.

(Additional reporting by Ginger Gibson and Damon Darlin; Editing by Peter Cooney and Jeffrey Benkoe)