4 Jan 2019

US House elects Democrat Pelosi to be speaker for 2019-2020

10:24 am on 4 January 2019

Democrats wasted no time flexing their new power in the US House of Representatives as they maneuvered to pass legislation that would end a 13-day partial government shutdown, while ignoring President Donald Trump's demand for $US5 billion ($NZ 7.467b) for a border wall.

Nancy Pelosi reacts as she is confirmed Speaker of the House during the 116th Congress and swearing-in ceremony on the floor of the US House of Representatives at the US Capitol on 3 January, 2019 in Washington, DC.

Nancy Pelosi reacts as she is confirmed Speaker of the House during the 116th Congress and swearing-in ceremony on the floor of the US House of Representatives. Photo: AFP

Today marks the first day of divided government in Washington since Mr Trump took office in January 2017, with Democrats taking control in the House from his fellow Republicans, who remain in charge of the Senate.

The 2019-2020 Congress begins work with roughly a quarter of the federal government closed, affecting 800,000 employees, in a shutdown triggered by Mr Trump's demand last month for the money for a wall along the US-Mexican border - opposed by Democrats - as part of any legislation funding government agencies.

Congressional leaders from both parties held unproductive talks with Mr 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.

Passage of the bill by the new Democratic House majority was expected to occur shortly after Nancy Pelosi was elected its speaker, as the liberal from San Francisco ascended for a second time to one of Washington's most powerful jobs.

The two-part Democratic package includes a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security at current levels through 8 February, providing $US1.3b for border fencing and $US300 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 30 September, the end of the current fiscal year.

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.

Mr 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.

'Nothing for the wall'

"No, no. Nothing for the wall," Ms Pelosi said in an interview aired 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."

Mr Trump accused Democrats of playing politics.

"The Shutdown is only because of the 2020 Presidential Election," Mr 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!"

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Wednesday his chamber, still in Republican hands, would not vote on the Democratic legislation, calling it a "political sideshow" and "total non-starter."

Senator Dick Durbin, the number two Senate Democrat and a participant in Wednesday's meeting, told MSNBC, "We have to find a way to reopen the government.

"He [Donald Trump] really wants this confrontation because he thrives on chaos. He is stuck on this notion that he has to have a wall and he'll see this government come down rather than face the reality he doesn't have the votes for that wall."

National parks have closed campgrounds for fear that toilets will overflow. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees are working without pay. The immigration courts, already overburdened, are largely shuttered.

The $US5b Mr Trump is seeking would cover only a portion of the money needed for a border wall, a project estimated to cost about $US23b.

- Reuters

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs