Congress returns to Washington Thursday with a new Democratic House majority gaining leverage over President Donald Trump — and the partial government shutdown first on the list of problems to solve.
Nancy Pelosi, set to be elected House speaker when lawmakers convene at noon Thursday, will guide the Democrats’ opposition to Trump, possibly leading to impeachment. Senate Republicans will have a wider margin of control in their chamber, meaning easier confirmation of Trump’s executive branch nominees and judicial picks, including any Supreme Court vacancy that may emerge.
“My prediction? More dysfunction than there should be, unfortunately,” said Representative Peter King, a New York Republican.
The first test of the new dynamic in Washington may come Wednesday when Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer have a 3 p.m. meeting with Trump and GOP congressional leaders at the White House for a briefing on border security. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin will attend the meeting, as will Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and incoming House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
It will be the first meeting between Trump and congressional leaders since the shutdown began and is the first sign of a potential opening for negotiations.
Trump in a tweet on Tuesday suggested he was offering an olive branch to Pelosi.
“Border Security and the Wall “thing” and Shutdown is not where Nancy Pelosi wanted to start her tenure as Speaker! Let’s make a deal?,” the president said on Twitter.
Pelosi responded with her own tweet, saying Trump “has given Democrats a great opportunity to show how we will govern responsibly & quickly pass our plan to end the irresponsible #TrumpShutdown – just the first sign of things to come in our new Democratic Majority committed to working #ForThePeople.”
The meeting is scheduled as the shutdown’s effects are becoming increasingly visible to the public.
Smithsonian Institution museums and the National Zoo in Washington close Wednesday for lack of funds. The Federal Communications Commission will suspend most operations Thursday, no longer taking consumer complaints and halting review of proposed mergers. Nearly 14,000 workers at the Environmental Protection Agency were furloughed on Saturday, and federal workers will miss their Jan. 11 paycheck unless the government reopens.
Departments without funds include Justice, Homeland Security, Interior and Treasury, while independent agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission are also affected. About 400,000 federal employees are working without pay and 350,000 are furloughed.
The House Democrats plan to vote Thursday on legislation to reopen the government while punting the question of funding Trump’s wall into early February. The president is demanding $5 billion for his southern border wall, which Democrats call ineffective and wasteful.
Before the meeting invitation was extended, Trump appeared to be digging in. He said in a Fox News interview that he was “not giving up” in his standoff with Pelosi and Schumer over the border wall funding.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders in a statement Tuesday night called the Democratic funding plan “a non-starter.” Democrats also have shown no sign they are willing to back down in their opposition.
Both parties also will begin posturing for the 2020 elections, with the White House, Senate and House in play.
The 435-seat House will be controlled by at least 235 Democrats, including a number of progressive freshmen who may show little inclination to compromise. In the Senate, Republicans gained two seats to boost their majority to 53-47, and the only GOP senators who consistently took on the president, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, are retiring.
A top priority for House Democrats will be to pass legislation shoring up Obamacare, which expanded insurance coverage to millions of Americans, because of a Republican-led court challenge seeking to invalidate the law. A federal judge in Texas last month struck down Obamacare; Democratic-led states have vowed to appeal and the case is likely to wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
There’s a clamor on the left to create “Medicare for All” in which all Americans would get their insurance from a government plan, setting up a fight both within the party and with Republicans.
On a separate health-care matter, there’s been some talk of cooperation to curb prescription-drug costs and improve infrastructure.
“We ran on a pretty specific agenda that focused on health-care costs,” said Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. “I’m optimistic that actually the things Democrats ran on, that we committed to getting done, are things that ought to earn the support of our Republican colleagues.”
But pessimism is setting in as lawmakers brace for more revelations from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election meddling and Trump’s presidential campaign.
House Democrats will put Trump and his administration under a microscope with committees investigating allegations of corruption as well as government actions on immigration, foreign policy and environmental protection. All this could heighten divisiveness and pressure to impeach.
“That’s the concern a lot of us have — we don’t want that to upend a legislative agenda and oversight agenda that we think were the pillars that persuaded the majority of voters to change the Congress,” said Representative Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democrat and senior member of the House Oversight Committee. “At the same time, we must uphold our constitutional role of oversight.”
Connolly said dozens of House Democratic freshmen and returning members are already calling for impeachment and that “it could come to a head.”
Pelosi, Connolly and other Democrats say an impeachment effort would be premature. They want to see Mueller’s probe conclude first, and would need Republican support to go beyond a House impeachment that fails in the Senate.
On policy matters, an early action item in the House and Senate will be legislation approving Trump’s trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. But Pelosi has dismissed the trade deal as a “work in progress” and says she wants to add environmental and labor protections. She also hasn’t indicated whether she would back the “fast track” up-or-down vote procedure Trump could need to easily clear the deal.
The trade agreement may also have trouble getting support in the Senate, although incoming Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has praised it and promised to try to usher it through his panel.
McConnell has already indicated he’ll nix some of House Democrats’ initial policy objectives. The Kentucky Republican has said he won’t back their plan to overhaul campaign-finance rules. He’ll also likely block Democrats’ bills on gun control, the environment and immigration.
McConnell told reporters after the November elections that Senate Republicans aren’t interested in a $900 billion infrastructure package Democrats are discussing, and said no proposal for roads and bridges should be considered without resolving how to finance it.
“You know what the sticking point is: How do you pay for it,” McConnell told reporters.
Avoiding Further Shutdowns
Lawmakers face tough battles on even more basic legislative functions.
Leaders in both chambers must agree on raising the federal debt limit, which is now suspended but will go back into effect March 1. The Treasury Department likely can use so-called extraordinary measures to delay reaching the limit into mid-year, but eventually lawmakers must find a way to prevent a default on government obligations.
Passing annual spending bills will become more contentious, raising the prospect of additional government shutdowns. Under GOP control of Congress in the last two years, even Republicans ignored the deep budget cuts Trump proposed for the State Department, environment and other programs, and provided little funding for the border wall.
Now the Democratic House will probably press for big domestic-spending increases, far beyond what Trump and the GOP Senate might accept.
The two chambers almost certainly won’t agree on an annual budget blueprint like one that allowed the GOP Senate in 2017 to bypass a Democratic filibuster and enact a massive tax cut. Going forward, any tax changes would be subject to a 60-vote threshold, meaning they couldn’t be enacted without Democratic support.