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New House: Tougher time or more of same for Trump?

By Zhao Huanxin in Washington | China Daily | Updated: 2019-01-07 11:11
US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (center left) takes a "selfie" with US Representative Terri Sewell (center) as they stand with female House Democratic members of the 116th Congress for a photo outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on Friday. [Photo/Agencies]

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The 116th US Congress gaveled into session on Thursday, the first one to convene amid a partial government shutdown that stretched into half a month on Sunday over President Donald Trump's demands to fund a wall along the border with Mexico.

With the Democrats taking control of the House and the unprecedented turnover of the Republican president's Cabinet, some in the US media have predicted that Trump's first two years may ultimately look calm compared to what lies ahead.

Some political scientists, however, have argued that it's going to be more of the same in the next two years, but the administration will be increasingly consumed and distracted by the multiplying investigations.

While nobody has a crystal ball, one thing seems certain: Legislative gridlock may be routine on Capitol Hill, as shown in the first days of the new session.

The Democrats, with veteran Nancy Pelosi at the helm, planned quickly to pass measures to reopen the government but without providing $5 billion in funding for the border wall that Trump demanded.

"We're not doing a wall," said Pelosi, who was elected speaker for the second time. "A wall is an immorality between countries. It's an old way of thinking; it isn't cost effective."

The measures likely will go nowhere in the Senate, whose Republican majority was bolstered following the November midterm elections. Pelosi said Democrats would pass new legislation to try to reopen parts of the government next week after talks between the Trump administration and Democratic negotiators on Saturday ended with no breakthrough.

On Friday, House Democrats unveiled an elections and ethics reform package that would make it easier for citizens to register and vote, tighten election security and reduce the role of money in politics.

The legislation also would require presidents to disclose at least 10 years' worth of tax returns. Some observers said it was a direct response to Trump's refusal to release his tax returns.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, has pronounced the reform measure dead on arrival in the Senate.

The Democrats' push for gun control would likely meet the same fate.

Pelosi and her colleagues are expected to introduce a bill to expand background checks for the sale and transfer of firearms on Tuesday, the eighth anniversary of the day former Democratic Representative Gabby Giffords was shot in the head outside a supermarket in Arizona.

The background-checks measure is likely to face opposition from the Senate and the White House, where Trump has promised to "protect the Second Amendment".

The Democrats seem to be divided about immediate efforts to impeach the president. Some have talked publicly about impeachment, but Pelosi is cautious about the idea, saying "it would be very divisive".

Mark C. Rom, associate professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, said the Democrats will launch many congressional investigations, which he hoped would be part of larger strategies.

"For example, they will demand Trump's tax returns, not primarily to expose him but as part of a broader campaign against corruption," he told China Daily in an email.

Cal Jillson, a political scientist and historian at Southern Methodist University, said

the subpoena-wielding House Democrats are expected to initiate myriad investigations, including questioning Trump Cabinet members and officials and other administration leaders.

The investigations will be a distraction from the administration's ability to pursue its initiatives, he said.

"So I do think that the issues of investigations leading to distraction is a problem, particularly if he is unable to appoint and hold serious, qualified, experienced counselors and senior administrators in his administration," Jillson told China Daily.

Stanley Renshon, a political scientist at the City University of New York, said that the Democrats will be able to issue subpoenas to make Trump's life miserable.

But what Trump is going to face after the Democrats take over is "not really going to be all that much different than what he faced before", Renshon told China Daily.

"They've been trying to do that for the last two years, so he's had a lot of practice," Renshon said. "I see it as more of the same. It's going to be a very fraught couple of years.

"The problem for him really is not so much the Democrats; the problem is the American public," he said, explaining that while Trump likes the fight, Americans don't like fights.

Renshon's comments contrast with a New York Times report, which quoted Michael Steel, a longtime adviser to Republicans such as former House speakers Paul Ryan and John A. Boehner, as saying of Trump: "Nothing he's going to face in the next two years is going to be like the challenges of the previous two years."

Given the staff turnover – Trump is on his third chief of staff and third national security adviser – and the increasing feeling by the president that he is encircled or cornered by legal and political enemies, "it's entirely possible it gets worse, not better", Steel told the newspaper on Dec 22, the day the partial federal government shutdown began.

Commenting on the unprecedented number of departures, resignations and firings in the Trump administration, Renshon said, "The first two years for Trump is like a shakedown cruise."

However, Renshon, also a psychoanalyst, cautioned that the intensifying investigations and frequent personnel changes will have an impact.

"It's like getting hit in the head repeatedly — every time you get hit and you notice you're being hit, and you don't like it and it makes you angry, so he is going to be mobilized," Renshon said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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