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WASHINGTON: The new US Congress convened on Thursday with Democrats controlling the House of Representatives, marking a dramatic power shift on Capitol Hill less than two years before President Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election bid.

The opening ushered in a new era of divided government in Washington, with Democrats intent on checking the Republican’s turbulent presidency nearly two years into his term.

The clerk of the House rapped the gavel to signal the chamber was into session, with 235 Democrats and 199 Republicans reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and bei­ng sworn in, ahead of a vote to elect Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House. One seat in the 435-member House rem­ains in dispute two months after the election.

Vice President Mike Pence swore in the new members of the US Senate, where 53 Republicans hold the majority over 45 Democrats and two independents who align with Democrats.

Pelosi was poised to take over as speaker for the second time in her career, a remarkable revival for a battle-tested politician who is so far the only woman to head the House.

Her first task will be to help end a partial federal government shutdown over Trump’s insistence that lawmakers fund a US-Mexico border wall.

In excerpts of the speech she delivers to the House later Thursday, Pelosi vowed the new Congress would be “bipartisan and unifying” and “will debate and advance good ideas no matter where they come from.” “In that spirit, Democrats will be offering the Senate Republican appropriations legislation to re-open government later today — to meet the needs of the American people, and to protect our borders,” she said.

But such cooperation across the political aisle appeared unlikely as Trump continued to dig in over his demand that Congress approve a $5 billion plan to construct a border wall aimed at thwarting illegal immigration — with Democrats unlikely to appease him. After saying he remained “ready and willing to work with Democrats” late Wednesday, Trump lashed out on Thursday.

“The Shutdown is only because of the 2020 Presidential Election,” he tweeted.

“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!” Pelosi will preside over the most diverse Congress in history.

One hundred House freshmen took the oath of office, including trailblazers like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who at 29 is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. The first two Native American women and first two Muslim women were also elected.

“It’s a new day in America,” tweeted Ilhan Omar, a Somali refugee elected from Minnesota. The House and Senate will each have a record number of female members.

Published in Dawn, January 4th, 2019

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