WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress reconvened amid a new world order Monday, opening a lame-duck session shadowed by Donald Trump’s election, with perilous new opportunities and risks confronting the GOP.
House Speaker Paul Ryan began the day affirming that the Republican congressional majority is strongly aligned with the new president-elect, whom Ryan had initially refused to endorse and some congressional Republicans never backed.
Ryan enjoined colleagues to “hit the ground running as we join forces with the new Trump administration.”
“We need to seize this moment, and come together like never before,” the Wisconsin Republican wrote in a letter to the House GOP. “We cannot be timid about this: the country has voted for change, and we must deliver.”
In his letter, Ryan sought support for another term as speaker a year after first assuming the job. Closed-door House GOP leadership elections will take place on Tuesday, and Ryan is expected to prevail despite some rumblings of discontent among conservatives.
He would then need to be elected on the floor of the House by the full complement of Republicans and Democrats once the new Congress convenes in January. Republicans will control both chambers of Congress and the White House, giving the GOP a monopoly over Washington for the first time in more than a decade.
The situation is full of challenges to navigate, as Congress’ Republicans, and Trump himself, confront the task of delivering on his promises to voters.
On Monday, one of those pledges ran into reality as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested Congress might not sign on to the U.S.-Mexico border wall long promised by Trump.
McCarthy said there is bipartisan support for a border security bill, but that it might not take the shape of a wall along the entire 2,000-mile border. In some spots drone technology or other approaches might work better, McCarthy told reporters.
“I just want to make sure it’s secure,” the California Republican said. “I won’t predetermine.”
That came after Ryan told a CNN interviewer over the weekend that there would be no “deportation force” to round up immigrants in the country illegally, as also promised by Trump.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also demurred on the wall idea last week, and Trump himself said in CBS’ “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday that he’d be open to “fencing” in some spots instead.
As the House came back into session Monday, some 50 newly elected House members, and six new senators, were arriving in the capital to learn the ropes of their new jobs, much like college freshmen at orientation.
The new 115th Congress will include the first Latina senator and a record number of minority women, but Congress will remain overwhelmingly white, male and middle-aged.
Before the newcomers can get to work, the existing Congress must close out remaining business with President Barack Obama. Most urgently, government funding runs out Dec. 9, and Congress must pass a new spending bill or face a shutdown. The solution could be to extend existing spending levels, postponing tough decisions until next year, when numerous other tasks will also await.
On the Democratic side, there was bitterness in defeat as a group of House Democrats pressured Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to delay leadership elections now set for Thursday. A letter signed by more than two dozen lawmakers sought more time to “analyze how our party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s strategy fell so short of our goals.”
Republicans lost only a half-dozen seats in the House and just two in the Senate, far fewer than forecast.
McCarthy and other Republicans also were forced to defend Trump’s pick of Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist and senior counselor. Bannon was an executive at Breitbart News, a website that appealed to the so-called “alt-right” movement that involves efforts to preserve “white identity” and oppose multiculturalism.
“The president has a right to select who he thinks is best,” McCarthy insisted after a reporter read aloud some of the incendiary headlines Breitbart has published, including referring to former Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords as “The Gun Control Movement’s Human Shield” after she was shot in the head.
After the Giffords headline was repeated to him, McCarthy said: “Nowhere would I ever agree with those words, nowhere would I ever stand behind those words.”
But he urged people concerned about Bannon: “Don’t prejudge the new president, give him an opportunity to govern.”
Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.