WASHINGTON, United States (AFP) — Democrats take over the US House of Representatives on Thursday, ushering in a new era of divided government in Washington with the goal of checking Donald Trump’s turbulent presidency.
Battle-tested Nancy Pelosi was poised to take over as speaker of the House for the second time in her career, as a partial federal government shutdown over Trump’s insistence that lawmakers fund a US-Mexico border wall neared the two-week mark.
The end of Trump’s one-party rule in Washington invigorated Democrats still dejected over the bombastic Republican’s 2016 presidential win.
In excerpts of the speech she was to deliver to the House later Thursday, Pelosi vowed the new Congress would be “bipartisan and unifying” and “will debate and advance good ideas no matter where they come from.”
“In that spirit, Democrats will be offering the Senate Republican appropriations legislation to re-open government later today — to meet the needs of the American people, and to protect our borders,” she said.
But such cooperation across the political aisle appeared unlikely as Trump continued to dig in over his demand that Congress approve a US$5 billion plan to construct a border wall aimed at thwarting illegal immigration — with Democrats appearing unlikely to appease him.
After saying he remained “ready and willing to work with Democrats” late Wednesday, Trump lashed out Thursday.
“The Shutdown is only because of the 2020 Presidential Election,” he tweeted.
“The Democrats know they can’t win based on all of the achievements of ‘Trump,’ so they are going all out on the desperately needed Wall and Border Security – and Presidential Harassment. For them, strictly politics!”
– Gridlock near-certain –
Indeed, progressives will be eager to push back with greater effect against an administration they believe has overstepped its authority and abused power in the nearly two years since Trump’s inauguration.
They will have that opportunity, as congressional panels will be led by chairmen who have pledged to probe topics such as Trump’s income taxes, his firing of attorney general Jeff Sessions, and the president’s ties to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Incoming chairpersons have signalled that Trump will face a barrage of investigations that could bog down a White House already besieged by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia collusion probe, draining energy from the administration’s agenda and foiling Trump’s message.
But while the “blue wave” swept dozens of House Republicans out of Congress last November, Trump’s party managed to modestly expand its majority in the Senate to 53-47, meaning Washington gridlock is almost certain to deepen.
– Not ‘stirring the pot’ –
Among the first tasks of the 116th Congress will be ending the shutdown, which has left one quarter of federal agencies shuttered due to lapsed funding.
Trump has said he would not sign a spending bill that does not include $5.6 billion for wall construction.
Pelosi has introduced new measures that would fund the agencies, but she noted that they “contain no new wall funding,” a move the White House — and Republican Senate leaders — dismissed as a non-starter.
“Democrats will have to get serious about border security so that a government funding agreement may be reached that can pass the House, earn 60 votes here in the Senate, and receive a presidential signature,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement.
“All three of these things are needed. One partisan vote in the House tomorrow won’t solve anything.”
The House and Senate convene Thursday at noon, with the new Congress sworn in shortly thereafter. Pelosi is expected to win her speaker election in the early afternoon.
She will preside over the most diverse Congress in history.
One hundred House freshmen will take the oath of office, including trailblazers like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who at 29 is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
The first two Native American women and first two Muslim women were also elected.
“It’s a new day in America,” tweeted Ilhan Omar, a Muslim Somali refugee elected from Minnesota, along with a picture of her standing on Capitol Hill.
The House and Senate will each have a record number of female members.
Democrats will move early to protect coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, and form a special committee on climate change.
Hovering in the background in Washington will be the threat of impeachment, and it is almost certain that some Democrats will introduce proceedings to remove Trump from office.
Even if Democrats believe some of Trump’s actions clear the threshold of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” Pelosi has downplayed the prospects of impeachment.
“It would be very divisive,” she told Elle magazine. “It’s not something that I’m stirring the pot on.”