By Amanda Becker and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats wasted no time flexing their new power in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday as they maneuvered to pass legislation that would end a 13-day partial government shutdown while ignoring President Donald Trump’s demand for $5 billion for a border wall.
Thursday marks 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 U.S.-Mexican border wall – opposed by Democrats – as part of any legislation funding government agencies.
Congressional leaders from both parties held unproductive talks with Trump at the White House on Wednesday and are to return for another round on Friday, a sign the shutdown is likely to continue for the rest of the week.
The House began the formal process of electing Nancy Pelosi as its speaker, which will mark the second time the liberal Democrat from San Francisco has held what is one of Washington’s most powerful jobs. The chamber then was expected to turn quickly to votes on the Democratic government funding legislation.
The two-part Democratic package includes a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security at current levels through Feb. 8, providing $1.3 billion for border fencing and $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.
‘THE WRONG FOOT’
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled that the Democratic legislation has no future in the Senate, calling it “political theater, 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.”
McConnell said the Senate will not take up any proposal that does not have a real chance of getting Trump’s signature.
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.
Democrats said their approach would give both sides a month to negotiate a compromise on border security while reopening all other parts of the government. 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!”
The $5 billion Trump is seeking would cover only a portion of the money needed for a border wall, a project estimated to cost about $23 billion.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Ginger Gibson and Amanda Becker; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert, Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Bill Trott)