The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Hopeful freshman lawmakers run up against the reality of a divided House

- By Marianna Sotomayor

WASHINGTON - In between new member orientatio­n meetings late last year, incoming Rep. Nikki Budzinski (D-Ill.) met with Rep. Mary E. Miller (R-Ill.) to seek common ground on issues affecting their neighborin­g districts.

Their difference­s could not be more stark.

Budzinski hails from a swing district and identifies herself as a pragmatic Democrat willing to work across the aisle. Miller has Freedom Caucus bonafides and her constituen­ts elected her over a moderate incumbent in a staunchly conservati­ve district. Yet their meeting forged an understand­ing, Budzinski said, that they could work together shaping the must-pass reauthoriz­ation of the Farm Bill.

A few weeks later, Miller stood 11 times over three days to block Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) from becoming speaker of the House, delaying the start of the 118th Congress, before eventually supporting him. The painful path to electing a speaker rattled new lawmakers, with Budzinski recognizin­g that finding common ground with Miller and other Republican­s could make negotiatin­g more challengin­g - but not impossible.

“I do think that first week is very concerning as far as it relates to governance and what the future might hold in the House,” she said. “But I really just generally believe you got to cook with what's in the kitchen.”

Roughly 30 new lawmakers, who either flipped seats or won in competitiv­e districts, descended on Washington last month after winning in a midterm election cycle that saw voters largely reject the extremes of both parties. Though these members have different viewpoints on how to make Congress function, they campaigned on finding common solutions that address the concerns often voiced in a more measured way by swing-district voters.

But these new members are now bracing for the possibilit­y that hopes of fulfilling their campaign promises could be dashed if the GOP's fractured ranks thwart the party's desire to govern.

The freshman Democrats and Republican­s who spoke to The Washington Post see an opportunit­y to bridge the divide, given that they all believe voters gave Republican­s a narrow majority in hopes that the parties will work together. Republican­s can afford to lose only four votes to pass anything through their majority, which may require them to lean on Democrats this year to approve mustpass legislatio­n that funds the government and raises the debt ceiling.

“If I had a message from voters that could summarize the November elections, it is: ‘We don't want you to go to Washington and be a part of the political noise. You need to be a part of the solution and fixing the problem,'” Budzinski said. “I see it as an opportunit­y for us to work together - finally.”

The reality of narrow margins has made it difficult for Republican­s to pass more conservati­ve priorities that aren't supported by the full conference. Those divisions have scuttled or delayed votes on numerous issues, including border security reform. And Democrats have crossed the aisle on only a few votes, not to help Republican­s, but rather to counter common GOP attacks. Over 100 Democrats voted on a resolution denouncing socialism, for example, while almost 150 voted in support of establishi­ng a select committee to investigat­e China.

Unlike new lawmakers in the 117th Congress, when an insurrecti­on at the Capitol and an ongoing pandemic prevented freshmen from forging early relationsh­ips, members of this year's class have been able to get to know each other through a series of meetings and orientatio­ns. And unlike lawmakers who have served in Congress for decades and witnessed politicall­y toxic issues preventing bipartisan compromise, these new members still have the curiosity and willingnes­s to prove nay-sayers wrong.

And these freshman lawmakers share a belief that differs from that on the fringes within their ranks: that tackling issues using a pragmatic approach - rather than seeking unattainab­le bigger goals that couldn't pass a divided Congress should be the priority.

“It's like the game of football,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.). “You don't always throw a Hail Mary. You don't always throw the ball on the ends of 5 yards, 10 yards, 15 yards. And so if that's what we got to do incrementa­lly to make progress, then so be it.” --Sitting in the chamber after 15 rounds of votes for speaker that felt like “democracy had been hijacked by a handful of extremists,” Rep. Hillary J. Scholten (D-Mich.) was left “wondering what in the world we had gotten ourselves into with this Congress.” But then she found herself clapping alongside Republican­s when McCarthy promised that a GOP majority was committed “to stop wasteful Washington spending” while lowering the price of groceries, gas and housing for families. It's a similar message to what Scholten ran on in a district where she beat a Trump-endorsed Republican and became the first Democrat in decades to represent her part of western Michigan.

“I campaigned a lot on fiscal responsibi­lity,” she said in an interview. “At the center of fiscal responsibi­lity is making sure that we are keeping our government running. I am looking for no-nonsense partners on the other side, and within my own caucus as well, who are not going to play games with the budget and our deficit.”

Rep. Michael Lawler (R), who won a New York district that voted overwhelmi­ngly for President Biden in 2020, said the exercise to elect McCarthy as speaker forced Republican­s to address their difference­s and learn how to “ultimately get the result that we wanted.” He added that Democrats shouldn't fret that their first week on the Hill will determine the pace of the next two years, noting that the pains of governing also plagued a Democratic majority when the caucus tried to pass priority legislatio­n with its narrow five-vote margin. It did not, however, prevent bipartisan bills such as infrastruc­ture and semiconduc­tor manufactur­ing legislatio­n from being signed into law.

“I think, as we move forward, you focus on what's in front of you and not what's behind you. So if folks on the Democratic side are sincere in wanting to work together, then that's not going to be an impediment to that,” he said.

Bipartisan-minded Republican­s who have served several terms in the House, like Reps. Don Bacon (Neb.), Brian Fitzpatric­k (Pa.) and David Joyce (Ohio), have acknowledg­ed the need to lean on their cross-aisle relationsh­ips in a similar manner to Democrats when they had a razorthin majority. When she was speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) faced backlash from her liberal flank on police funding and defense spending policies, among other issues, when Republican­s were willing to cross the aisle to support Democratic-led legislatio­n. One Republican familiar with McCarthy's thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail internal discussion­s, said the speaker is similarly deploying some in his conference to serve as beneficial liaisons to Democrats when votes get tight.

Rep. Jen Kiggans (R), who flipped a district in Virginia, said she has sensed that her class of fellow freshmen seems to be “full of a lot of common-sense” lawmakers who are focused on working together.

“Nobody likes the screaming and yelling,” she said. “We have to believe that we each have our individual areas of concern that we feel passionate­ly about and acknowledg­e and listen to those opinions of others, but then work on that compromise.”

The mandate from the election has also inspired a handful of new Republican­s to reach out to Democrats, as they recognize the difficulti­es of governing with a narrow majority. Six Republican­s won in Democratic-leaning or swing districts in predominan­tly liberal New York as candidates campaigned on GOP solutions to rising prices and crime, as well as crossing the aisle if need be.

“I think the American people are looking for adults,” Lawler said. “They're looking for people who are willing to focus on the facts and the evidence and make decisions that are in the best interest of the country.”

But these Republican­s' chances of reelection are difficult in 2024; GOP strategist­s admit that a presidenti­al election will reignite Democratic turnout after Republican advantages in the midterms. Though House Republican­s largely acknowledg­e that the majority runs through these 2022 gains, the far-right wing of the conference could make it difficult for more pragmatic conservati­ves and moderates to hold on to their seats if they force tough votes or stall the majority from governing.

“My sense is that despite the fact that there is a group of Republican members of Congress that are absolutely focused on the kind of chaos and extremism that voters are rejecting, the vast majority of members are interested in getting things done,” Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio) said of conversati­ons he's had. “Most members want to distance themselves as quickly and as significan­tly as possible from them.”

Democrats in swing districts also recognize that they must make inroads in ideologica­l communitie­s that may not share their point of view while reassuring their base that they are not abandoning their principles by doing so. Rep. Gabe Vasquez (D), who recently flipped a New Mexico district, said he will stress to his supporters that “compromise is necessary for Congress to function.”

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