On Day 1 in power, House Democrats challenge Trump on shutdown

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US President Donald Trump, during an impromptu news briefing in which he took no questions, congratulated Nancy Pelosi after the California Democrat was elected as the new Speaker of the House.
Democrat Representative Eric Swalwell holds his daughter Kathryn as the US House of Representatives meets for the start of the 116th Congress. PHOTO: REUTERS
House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi stands with children after being elected at the start of the 116th Congress. PHOTO: REUTERS
Members of Congress sit during the 116th Congress and swearing-in ceremony. PHOTO: AFP
Democrat Representatives (from left) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Barbara Lee, Jahana Hayes, Lauren Underwood and Sheila Jackson Lee. PHOTO: REUTERS
Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar (left) takes the oath of office from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi during the opening session of the 116th Congress. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Democrats wasted no time flexing their new power in the US House of Representatives on Thursday (Jan 3) as they maneuvered to pass legislation backed by new Speaker Nancy Pelosi that would end a 13-day partial government shutdown while ignoring President Donald Trump's demand for US$5 billion (S$6.8 billion) for a border wall.

Thursday marked the first day of divided government in Washington since Trump took office in January 2017, as Democrats took control in the House from his fellow Republicans, who remain in charge of the Senate.

The 2019-2020 Congress convened with roughly a quarter of the federal government closed, affecting 800,000 employees, in a shutdown triggered by Trump's demand last month for the money for a US-Mexican border wall - opposed by Democrats - as part of any legislation funding government agencies.

The House formally picked veteran Democratic lawmaker Pelosi as its speaker, elevating the liberal from San Francisco for her second stint in one of Washington's most powerful jobs.

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

The second part 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.

Pelosi was cheered by fellow Democrats when she said in a speech on the House floor that the legislation would be voted on later on Thursday.

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She received 220 votes, Republican Kevin McCarthy got 192 votes and a few others garnered the remaining votes in the 435-seat chamber.

"I pledge that this Congress will be transparent, bipartisan and unifying, that we will seek to reach across the aisle (to the other party) in this chamber and across divisions across our nation," Pelosi said.

Pelosi now is situated to lead Democratic opposition to Trump's agenda and carry out investigations of his administration following two years during which congressional Republicans largely acquiesced to the president.


Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled that the Democratic legislation has no future in the Senate, calling it "political theatre, not productive lawmaking."

"Let's not waste the time," he said on the Senate floor. "Let's not get off on the wrong foot with House Democrats using their platform to produce political statements rather than serious solutions."

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McConnell said the Senate will not take up any proposal that does not have a real chance of getting Trump's signature.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer urged McConnell to allow the Democratic legislation to come to a vote in the chamber and said there was no reason to keep parts of the government unrelated to the border security issue shut down because of the wall standoff.

"If Leader McConnell tonight would put the bill that's passing the House on the floor, it would pass," Schumer said, noting that the measures previously have been backed by Senate Republicans.

After the November congressional elections, Republicans have a 53-47 majority in the Senate and Democrats have a 235-199 margin in the House with one seat undecided.

Trump made the wall a key campaign promise in 2016, saying Mexico would pay for it and arguing it is needed to combat illegal immigration and drug trafficking. Democrats have called the wall immoral, ineffective and medieval.

"No, no. Nothing for the wall," Pelosi said in an interview aired on Thursday on NBC's Today show.

"We're talking about border security. There is no amount of persuasion he (Trump) can do to say to us, 'We want you to do something that is not effective, that costs billions of dollars.' That sends the wrong message about who we are as a country."

Trump on Thursday accused Democrats of playing politics.

"The Shutdown is only because of the 2020 Presidential Election," Trump wrote on Twitter.

"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!"

Credit rating agency Moody's said the shutdown would cause minimal US economic and credit market disruption but there could be a more severe impact on financial markets and the broad economy if the closure is protracted.

The US$5 billion Trump is seeking would cover only a portion of the money needed for a border wall, a project estimated to cost about US$23 billion.

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