Nancy Pelosi is sworn in as speaker at the US House of Representatives in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, the US, on January 3 2019. Picture: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS
Nancy Pelosi is sworn in as speaker at the US House of Representatives in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, the US, on January 3 2019. Picture: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS

Washington — The new House Democratic majority voted on Thursday to end the partial government shutdown but brought Congress no closer to resolving the impasse over President Donald Trump’s demand to pay for a border wall.

The president and Senate Republicans oppose the Democrats’ plan, and the next effort to reopen the closed agencies will come when leaders of both parties meet with Trump at the White House on Friday morning.

Republican representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a close confidant of Trump and chair of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, predicted the shutdown would last for months.

“The impasse is real and it is deep,” Meadows said in an interview.

The House votes came hours after the opening of the 116th Congress and the election of Nancy Pelosi in a triumphant return as House speaker, the only woman to serve in the position. She first served as speaker from 2007 to 2011.

The House voted 239-192 to pass the first government spending bill, HJ Res 1, which would reopen the department of homeland security until February 8 to allow time for continued talks on the border wall. The chamber then passed a second measure, HR 21, which would open the other eight shuttered cabinet departments until September, on a 241-190 vote.

Standing by Trump

The votes were along party lines as almost all House Republicans stood by Trump, whose budget office threatened a veto of the bills if he doesn’t get the $5bn he is seeking for a wall at the border with Mexico.

But Democrats contended the Republicans should back the spending measures, because the Republican-controlled Senate or its committees voted overwhelmingly to pass them before the president reversed course and announced his opposition in December to any plan that lacked border wall funds.

“We are sending them back exactly, word for word, what they have passed,” Pelosi of California told reporters shortly before the vote. “The president cannot hold public employees hostage because he wants to have a wall that is not effective.”

Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said the bills “separate the wall fight from the government shutdown — you don’t have to have one, even if you can’t resolve the other”.

“These are not Democratic bills; they were crafted in a bipartisan way by a Republican-controlled Senate appropriations committee and a Republican-controlled Senate,” Schumer said.

The second measure contains bipartisan Senate spending bills for the departments of treasury, commerce, justice, agriculture, state, interior, transportation, and housing and urban development. It also would fund dozens of related agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration.

‘Political theatre’

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said the House votes were “political theatre, not productive lawmaking”. The Kentucky Republican said his chamber won’t take up the spending bills because they don’t contain spending increases for border security.

As both sides continued to harden their positions, Trump made a surprise appearance on Thursday in the White House briefing room with border patrol agents to make his case.

“Without a wall you cannot have border security,” Trump told reporters. “It won’t work.” He left without taking questions.

Vice-President Mike Pence offered Democrats a compromise on December 22, the first day of the shutdown, in which Trump would accept $2.5bn for border security. Trump later disavowed the offer, saying he needed $5.6bn for a wall.

Senate Democrats in August backed $1.6bn for border security, though they now say they’re unwilling to provide any more than the $1.3bn approved in 2018 for fencing.

House progressives urged Pelosi not to provide any money for the wall.

“We should not give in to extortion,” said Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin, whose district contains thousands of federal workers. “We have sent back the most reasonable and mild proposal to reopen the government” and Republicans should accept it, he said.

Shutdown effects

Federal workers are bearing the brunt of the shutdown’s effects. More than 450,000 “essential” employees are working without pay, including law enforcement, border patrol agents and airport screeners. These workers received their wages at the end of December but will miss their next pay cheque on January 11 unless the agencies reopen. That could create a deadline for the talks next week.

Another 380,000 employees have been furloughed without pay.

For the public, the visible signs of the shutdown have come in the form of overflowing rubbish at national parks, closed museums in Washington and a lack of guidance from the Internal Revenue Service as the first tax filing season begins under the new tax code enacted in 2017. Financial markets are flying blind as the commerce and agriculture departments suspended regular reports.

The partial shutdown will cut US economic output by about 0.1% every two weeks, said Kevin Hassett, chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

Earlier on Thursday, the House voted 234-197 to pass part of its package of legislative rules — normally a routine matter, but a few Democratic progressives decided to oppose their own party’s rules. Representatives Ro Khanna of California and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said the package was flawed because it contains a “pay as you go” austerity provision supported by Democratic centrists. Only Democrat Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii joined them in voting against the rules.

Pelosi elected speaker

Earlier the House voted to elect Pelosi as speaker of the House of Representatives, marking a triumphant return to the post. She pledged to reach across the aisle to Republicans and make transparency “the order of the day” as Democrats took power.

The California Democrat, the only woman to hold the speakership, won the partisan election with 220 Democratic votes, as 15 members of her party cast their ballots for someone else or voted present. Most Republicans backed representative Kevin McCarthy.

“Let us pledge that when we disagree, we respect each other and we respect the truth,” Pelosi said in an address to the House chamber. “We will debate and advance good ideas no matter where they come from.’

During his impromptu White House briefing, Trump congratulated Pelosi on her “tremendous achievement”.

“Hopefully we are going to work together and we are going to get lots of things done like infrastructure and so much more,” the president told reporters. “I think it will be a little bit different than lots of people are thinking.”

Pelosi, 78, clinched the speakership after weeks of whittling down opposition from some fellow Democrats seeking a new generation of leadership. The deal to win over holdouts put an expiration date on her tenure: she promised not to stay more than four years in the job.

In her speech, Pelosi ticked off an agenda for the House: an infrastructure plan, more transparency in government, less influence for special interests, gun control and measures to protect minorities. She said Democrats would support laws to “protect our borders” while keeping the US welcoming for immigrants.

“We have heard from too many families who wonder in this time of globalisation and innovation if they have a place in the economy of tomorrow,” Pelosi said. “We must remove all doubt that they do, and say to them individually that we will have an economy that works for you.”

Diverse House

Democrats won the House majority in November’s election, gaining a net 40 seats, by riding a surge of suburban and female voters’ anger at Trump. Pelosi leads an emboldened and diverse Democratic caucus, which includes rising progressive stars as well as moderates who captured traditionally conservative districts. Pelosi will have to balance bipartisan compromises on legislation with oversight of a president whose inner circle and business dealings are under scrutiny.

Democrats control the House 235-199, with one seat in North Carolina not yet decided, giving them authority to launch new investigations of the president and his administration. A record number of women — 89 Democrats and 13 Republicans — will hold seats in the chamber. Among them are the first two Muslim women elected to Congress and two who are the first black representatives from New England.

Much of the tenor for the 116th Congress could be set by a report from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Some Democrats in Congress, bolstered by outside groups, say there’s already proof that Trump has committed the “high crimes and misdemeanours” that would justify his removal from office, but most party members are waiting for Mueller’s report.

Brad Sherman, a California Democrat who introduced articles of impeachment in 2018, told the Los Angeles Times he plans to reintroduce this measure in the new Congress, citing Trump’s firing of then-FBI director James Comey as an example of obstruction of justice.

Pelosi thus far has rejected pursuing Trump’s impeachment, saying such a move would be divisive for the country and would need conclusive evidence of wrongdoing from the special counsel investigation.

“We have to wait and see what happens with the Mueller report,” Pelosi said on Wednesday in an NBC interview. “We shouldn’t be impeaching for a political reason and we shouldn’t avoid impeachment for a political reason.”

Pelosi said House Democrats should focus more on issues such as immigration, climate and health care that are most important to the American people.

These issues in the past gave Pelosi some victories, such as the Affordable Care Act that was the Obama administration’s signature domestic achievement, and some disappointments, including the Dream Act to protect young undocumented immigrants that she shepherded through the House in 2010, only to see it fail in the Senate.

Leadership term limits

The next two terms will be the last chance for Pelosi to work for the policy priorities that have made her a hero to many women and progressives and a constant target of conservative attack adverts. Pelosi, first elected to Congress in 1986, said she’ll support a term-limit proposal for party leaders that would also apply to her two septuagenarian deputies: majority leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and majority whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina.

The proposal would limit Democrats in the top three House majority jobs to three two-year terms, with the option for a fourth term if approved by two-thirds of the caucus. Hoyer and Clyburn have said they oppose it.

Pelosi said she’ll abide by the proposal even if the party doesn’t adopt it in February. The term limit would be retroactive to her previous two terms as speaker, meaning she would have to step down by 2023. It probably would change little about her career plans.

“Four years? No, I don’t think that’s a lame duck,” Pelosi told reporters after agreeing to the term limit deal last month.