US lawmakers return to work, spending showdown ahead

Michael Mathes
US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, center, meets with Democratic senators-elect Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, left, and Jacky Rosen of Nevada in his US Capitol office on November 13, 2018 (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

Washington (AFP) - US lawmakers returned to Washington Tuesday for the first time since contentious midterm election campaigns, with Congress facing a spending showdown and Democrats eager to protect special prosecutor Robert Mueller's Russia probe.

Also on Capitol Hill were several soon-to-be-members elected to the Senate and House of Representatives, including the two Democrats who flipped Republican-held Senate seats, as they attended orientation sessions.

Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Nevada's Jacky Rosen, both of whom won seats long held by Republicans, met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer earlier.

On the Republican side, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell met with his party's senators-elect: Indiana's Mike Braun, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Josh Hawley of Missouri.

Each snatched seats from Democrats in states President Donald Trump won in 2016.

Democrats reclaimed the House from Republicans in last week's election, and are on track to pick up between 35 and 38 seats in the 435-seat chamber, according to the Cook Political Report.

President Donald Trump's party retained control of the Senate. The changes take effect January 3.

"The reality is that we still have a series of important, outstanding subjects to tackle between now and the end of this year," McConnell told the Senate as it came into session following a five-week break.

But for some, the midterms are not over.

Democratic Senator Bill Nelson is locked in an uncalled Senate race with his Republican rival, Florida's outgoing Governor Rick Scott.

The Florida race is undergoing a tense mandatory recount, with Trump and other senior Republicans openly accusing county officials of fraud.

Trump has repeatedly weighed in on the race, claiming, without evidence, that Florida ballots were "massively infected."

Nelson, speaking in Washington, said Scott was "using his power as governor to try to undermine the voting process."

Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, was more forceful, saying Trump and Scott were "attempting to bully the election officials in Florida out of doing their jobs in an attempt to win this election."

"It's just plain wrong. It's not American," he said, adding the effort marked "a large and dangerous step away from the democracy we all cherish."

- Busy 'lame duck' session -

Lawmakers meanwhile were returning to business.

During the "lame-duck" session -- when Congress meets between the election and the seating of new members -- lawmakers face a December 7 deadline to prevent a partial government shutdown by passing a spending measure that funds the Department of Homeland Security through fiscal year 2019, which ends September 30.

It could be tricky, as Trump has called for new funding for his wall on the southern US border with Mexico, which has divided some congressional Republicans.

In addition, Democrats and some Republicans want to attach legislation that would protect Mueller and his investigation, after Trump sacked attorney general Jeff Sessions and replaced him with Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker.

Whitaker has drawn criticism over his denial of Russia's meddling in the 2016 US elections, and his appointment was called "unlawful" in a court challenge by the state of Maryland.

Democrats, who will take over all House committees come January, have signaled their intention to swiftly hold hearings on issues from Trump's border family separation policy to the sacking of FBI director James Comey, and investigations on Trump's tax returns.

But many Democrats are pressing for immediate action, including Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. She is seeking hearings with Whittaker and Sessions.

"The circumstances surrounding Attorney General Sessions's departure raise serious questions, including whether the appointment (of Whittaker) is lawful and the possible impact on Special Counsel Mueller's investigation," Feinstein wrote to Judiciary Chairman Senator Chuck Grassley.

Congress will be welcoming its most diverse membership ever, including a record number of women.

In the coming weeks, Republicans and Democrats will choose their leadership in the House and Senate.

All eyes will be on Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the first female House speaker who is mounting a strong campaign to retake the gavel when her party votes November 28.

Some progressives have said they will not support Pelosi and are calling for new blood in leadership.

High-profile Democratic congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez showed she is prepared to challenge the system even before she takes office, standing with protesters at Pelosi's office demanding action on climate change.

"We can embrace the energy of activism to move our party's goals forward," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, adding that she spoke with Pelosi about commitments to climate change action.