US President Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi, Speaker-designate of the US House of Representatives. Image Credit: AP

Washington: Nancy Pelosi often quotes Abraham Lincoln saying public sentiment is everything. It’s a theory that will be put to the test when the new House Democratic majority gavels in today and votes to end a 12-day government shutdown without money for President Donald Trump’s border wall with Mexico.

The high-stakes move to reopen the government will be the first big battle between Trump and Pelosi as Democrats come into control ready to reassert the power of the legislative branch and confront the White House.

Trump is counting on public support as he holds out for $5 billion (Dh18.39 billion) to build the wall. He’s signaled that he is in no rush to give up on a signature campaign issue as he launches his own re-election bid in 2020. But Pelosi just as strongly believes the public will be on Democrats’ side as they try to get government working again, and move on to health care and other priorities — including oversight of the White House.

Congress reconvened on Wednesday with no signs of a workable plan to end the shutdown. Both the Senate and House of Representatives, returning from a short New Year’s Day break, met briefly, marking the last day of the Republican-controlled 2017-2018 Congress, one that was marked by deep partisan division. Separately, Trump invited the top Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress to the White House for what congressional sources described as a border security briefing.

Today, when Democrats take over the House in the 2019-2020 Congress, they plan to approve a two-part spending package meant to end the shutdown. But its prospects are grim in the Republican-led Senate, which previously approved similar measures on the floor or in committee but has since fallen in line with Trump’s demands to fund the wall on the US-Mexico border. The legislation sets the stage for the first major battle of the new Congress between House Democrats led by Nancy Pelosi and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The Democratic package could put Trump and his Republican allies in a tough position. If they reject funding bills for departments unconnected to border security, Republicans could be seen as holding those agencies and their roughly 800,000 affected workers hostage to Trump’s desire to build a wall that Democrats say would be ineffective and impractical.

But as the shutdown drags into a second week, shuttering popular Smithsonian museums and creating hardship among some 800,000 federal workers, the stalemate is fast becoming a test of wills rarely seen when Republicans had monopoly control of government in Washington. “We’re going to do our job,” said Representative Jim McGovern (Democrat from Massachusetts) the incoming chairman of the Rules Committee, vowing to pass legislation to re-open government. “The president should take ‘yes’ for an answer and go back to tweeting.”

Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer say they won’t consider offers that Trump hasn’t endorsed, after he unexpectedly rejected a spending bill that passed the Senate unanimously before the December 21 fiscal deadline. The impasse — and the collateral damage from a partially shuttered federal government — begins the new era of divided government in which Democrats must balance ambitions for a bipartisan agenda with oversight of a president they hope to unseat in 2020.

“Democrats are united against the President’s immoral, ineffective and expensive wall — the wall that he specifically promised that Mexico would pay for,” Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesman, said in an emailed statement. “Democrats have made it clear that, given that the President has changed his position so many times, we would not consider any offers from the White House that the president has not publicly endorsed.”

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham on Sunday cited several immigration proposals that previously failed to get sufficient Republican support as a possible starting place. “President Trump is not going to walk away from this fight without border security funding — money for the wall, for lack of a better way of saying it,” Graham said on CNN. “I’m not asking anybody to do something new. I’m just asking people to sit down and rearrange the deal that was offered before.”

Other Republicans, though, are more wary of the White House’s approach. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said Sunday a prolonged standoff only makes all sides look “silly.”

“If we blame each other, this could last a long, long time,” Shelby said on CBS’ Face the Nation. “It’s not a question of who wins, who loses ... Nobody wins in a shutdown, we all lose.”

Pelosi, meanwhile, shows no signs of wavering, eager to both re-open government and to launch the Democratic agenda.

When the House gavels open on Thursday, one of the first votes will be on Pelosi’s return as speaker. The California Democrat is confident she has the support needed to win.

Representative Lucille Roybal Allard (Democrat from California) the incoming chairwoman of the appropriations subcommittee that handles Homeland Security, said in an interview that her office was preparing legislation to keep government running and moving forward.

“Our goal is to make sure we move on our promises,” she said, noting that the public has “tremendous influence on what happens” in Washington.

And if the shutdown drags into the new Congress? “I don’t even want to think about that.”

— Washington Post