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Democratic takeover of House marks a new era of divided government

Democratic takeover of House marks a new era of divided government
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) wields the gavel again as speaker of the House. (Shawn Thew / EPA/Shutterstock)

Democrats took control of the House on Thursday with a show of unity and confrontation against President Trump, electing Rep. Nancy Pelosi as their speaker and passing legislation to reopen government agencies despite White House opposition.

It marked the first day of a new divided government that is likely to define the remainder of Trump’s term, putting the brakes on many Republican legislative priorities and launching House investigations into several administration officials and policies.

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Shortly after the 116th Congress convened, Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was elected speaker for the second time. She is the first lawmaker to wield the gavel after relinquishing it since Sam Rayburn more than 60 years ago.

“Two months ago, the American people spoke and demanded a new dawn,” Pelosi said after taking the gavel, referring to the midterm election that flipped the House to Democratic control.

“I am particularly proud to be the woman speaker of the House of this Congress, which marks 100 years of women having the right to vote, as we have the honor and the ability to serve with more than 100 women in the House of Representatives — the highest number in history,” said Pelosi, who in 2007 became the first woman to hold the post.

Pelosi claimed the speaker’s gavel by a 220-192 vote, just two more votes than she needed. Fifteen Democrats defected, voting “present” or for other Democrats. Most Republicans voted for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield).

Pelosi had faced a robust but brief uprising over returning to the speaker’s chair, with more than a dozen Democrats agitating for new leadership. Pelosi quelled the discord weeks ago by agreeing to some House rule changes and to new leadership term limits that will permit her to serve a maximum of four more years as speaker.

An energetic “first day of school” vibe overtook the House side of the Capitol. Newly elected lawmakers were still trying to find their way in the maze of underground hallways between their offices and the Capitol building. They took selfies on the floor and shared bipartisan congratulations and hugs.

Members brought onto the House floor their children and grandchildren, who alternatively ran around or slumped on their parents’ shoulders. In a lighter moment, one restless young future Democrat loudly declared Pelosi’s speech “Boring!”

McCarthy, Pelosi’s fellow Californian, congratulated her as he handed her the gavel, symbolizing the transfer of House control from Republicans to Democrats. It marked the first time that the leaders of both parties in the House have come from the same state.

But the celebratory and bipartisan mood is unlikely to last. A quarter of the government has been shut down since Dec. 22 over Trump’s refusal to sign a spending bill that doesn’t include $5 billion in taxpayer money to fund a wall along the southern border.

Negotiations are set to resume Friday at the White House, but there were few signs that the shutdown would end anytime soon.

“Right now, there are talks but not a real meaningful dialogue that I know about,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who leads the Senate Appropriations Committee. “At what point do the people quit blaming each other?”

The new Democratic majority in the House passed legislation late Thursday to fund most of the shuttered portion of the government through Sept. 30. Funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which controls border security, would be paid for through February, giving lawmakers an opportunity to negotiate while reopening government. It would not fund the border wall.

The bill is similar to a plan the Senate approved unanimously last month. But Trump later said that he did not support it because it didn’t fund the wall. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) now says he won’t allow the measures to come to a vote again unless Trump supports them.

With no end in sight, the shutdown entered its 13th day on Thursday and is on its way to setting a record: The longest government shutdown in history, in the mid-1990s, lasted 21 days.

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Trump showed no sign of backing down during a surprise appearance Thursday afternoon the White House press briefing room. He introduced several border officials who agreed with his call for a border wall. The White House said late Thursday that Trump would probably veto the two bills being advanced by Democrats.

The shutdown will be the first of many challenges Pelosi will face in her second round as speaker. For the veteran Democratic leader, this stint will be markedly different from her first as speaker during the Obama administration. Now there is a divided government, a Republican president and an emboldened progressive wing of her own party that promised voters a new way of operating in Washington.

Democrats have framed their goal for the next two years — in which overtly partisan legislation is likely to die in the Republican-controlled Senate — as serving as a check on Trump.

Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Carmel) said Democrats would use their new House majority “to live up to Article 1 [of the Constitution] and show the other branches that we are just as powerful as them, and we are a nation of checks and balances, and it’s time to be that check when it comes to this administration and certain decisions it makes.”

Democrats hopped out of the gate with a call for investigations into the Trump administration’s actions and other top liberal priorities. A key committee said it would hold three hearings this month into the environmental and economic impact of climate change, the Trump administration’s detention of children at the southern border, and a recent federal court ruling against the 2010 healthcare law.

Pelosi announced plans for the House to vote next week to intervene in that lawsuit in support of Obamacare.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Pelosi agreed to allow hearings on implementing a Medicare-for-all single-payer health program, which has become an almost required part of any 2020 Democratic presidential candidate’s platform.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Northridge) even introduced articles of impeachment against Trump, something some Democrats don’t support and fear could backfire.

Sherman’s motion — which he also introduced in 2017, when Republicans controlled the House — accuses Trump of obstructing justice by firing former FBI Director James B. Comey, among other wrongdoing.

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