The Democrats have formally taken control of the House of Representatives, ending a two-year Republican stranglehold on Washington and placing serious limits on U.S. President Donald Trump’s power.
The opposition party is planning to use its new-found sway to launch investigations into Mr. Trump’s business dealings and finances. The Democrats also gain the ability to kick-start impeachment proceedings – a real possibility, depending on the results of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of alleged collusion between the President’s circle and the Kremlin.
“The American people spoke and demanded a new dawn,” Nancy Pelosi told the chamber moments after reclaiming the post of Speaker. “They called upon the beauty of our Constitution: Our system of checks and balances that protects our democracy.”
The Democrats' first test will be their standoff with the Trump administration over the government shutdown, which reaches the two-week mark Friday.
Mr. Trump insists much of the government will remain closed until Congress provides US$5-billion to build a wall on the Mexican border; Ms. Pelosi is vowing not to grant this.
The new Speaker, in what is likely to be the final act of a three-decade political career, faces a delicate balancing act: Managing two years’ worth of confrontations with a volatile President while trying to advance a progressive policy agenda that can set her party up to reclaim the Oval Office in 2020.
In a pretaped interview with NBC that aired Thursday morning, she vowed the Democrats would not give Mr. Trump his border wall funding.
“How many more times can we say no? Nothing for the wall,” she said.
The President made a surprise afternoon appearance in the White House briefing room, accompanied by border guards.
“Without a wall, you cannot have border security,” he declared. “Thousands of people are rushing the border.”
The President has asked congressional leaders to meet him Friday morning at the White House to negotiate. But how the shutdown will be resolved is unclear.
In previous spending negotiations, Mr. Trump has been willing to accept general funding for border security in lieu of specific spending for the wall; the Democrats have, in the past, indicated they might approve the wall in exchange for legalizing the status of some children of unauthorized immigrants. But both sides appear to have ruled out such compromises this time.
The Democrats on Thursday evening passed their own bills to reopen the government, which the GOP-controlled Senate is likely to reject. The Democratic spending plan would fund most of the U.S. government until September and the Department of Homeland Security until next month, reopening the government without funding the wall while negotiations on border spending continue.
The shutdown has put approximately 800,000 government employees out of work temporarily and closed services ranging from national parks to the processing of tax rebates.
The Democrats could face increased pressure from public sector unions, which tend to back the party’s candidates, if the shutdown continues for weeks. Mr. Trump, for his part, could see mounting irritation from congressional Republicans, who pulled together a bipartisan spending bill that passed the Senate last month before the President rejected it because it did not pay for the wall.
“Republican leadership felt betrayed, because they had negotiated in good faith and came to some conclusion on a way forward,” said Steven Billet, a congressional expert at George Washington University.
Ms. Pelosi did not attack Mr. Trump directly on the floor of the House, focusing her speech instead on legislation she wants passed. The Democrats are crafting bills to protect Obamacare and lower prescription-drug prices, set aside more money for roads and other infrastructure, impose more stringent rules on lobbyists and campaign donors, tighten gun control and address climate change.
“We must be champions of the middle class, and those who aspire to it,” she said.
Analysts were skeptical that much, if any, of the Democratic agenda would become law.
“I think we’re pretty much set for nothing happening for a while,” said Jennifer Victor, a political scientist at George Mason University who specializes in Congress.
Lawmakers will also take up the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. The Democrats have threatened to vote down the trade pact if it isn’t reopened to add more stringent labour provisions. Mr. Trump has threatened to increase the pressure on Congress by pulling the United States out of the current North American free-trade agreement – a move that could set up a court challenge and another showdown.
The new Congress will be one of the most diverse in history, with a record number of women, including the first Muslim and Indigenous female representatives.
Ms. Pelosi herself faced opposition from both left and right in her caucus but, in the end, no serious challenger emerged. Despite a wave of youthful members entering the House, Democrats opted for an experienced political tactician to guide them through a turbulent two years. A 78-year-old who has represented San Francisco in the House since 1987, Ms. Pelosi was previously speaker from 2007 to 2011.
The Democrats have said they will also try to force the President to release his tax returns, probe loans to his businesses and reactivate a probe into connections between his associates and the Kremlin.