The new House Democratic freshmen who won on promises to change Washington arrived to find it more gridlocked than ever. Now they’re training their energy on the nation’s longest-ever government shutdown, bringing new kinds of political disruption to the Capitol even as they discover the narrow limits of their power.
For two days this past week, a group of these Democrats crossed the Capitol attempting to meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to urge him to bring up spending bills to reopen the government. On Wednesday, with the shutdown in its 26th day, they entered the Senate chamber — a place where many veteran House members have never set foot — en masse to hand deliver a letter to McConnell in the Republican cloakroom.
Their quest never yielded a face-to-face meeting with the Senate majority leader and didn’t budge him from his opposition to bringing up House-passed spending bills that President Trump opposes, but they argue their tactics brought greater attention to what they call GOP intransigence on the shutdown.
At the same time, several of their freshman colleagues attended a face-to-face meeting with Trump to ask him to reopen the government, while other freshman lawmakers initiated informal talks across the aisle to try to come up with a way out of the impasse.
Taken together, the moves served notice that the newly elected lawmakers who helped Democrats seize control of the House will be keeping up their push for change at the Capitol, just as they did throughout their history-making campaigns. The class of 60-plus freshmen, including record numbers of millennials, women and minorities, is getting attention and making waves — even as it remains to be seen whether the lawmakers can deliver results.
“I don’t see it as political theater; I think it’s political activism, which is something that is new to the Congress and perhaps is shaking things up,” said Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), one of the lawmakers elected to lead the class. “Folks are very frustrated. We came here to get something done, so what you are seeing is that frustration effectuated into action.”
The newcomers’ efforts aren’t being uniformly welcomed. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) sidestepped when asked whether the freshman Democrats brought a positive voice to Congress, saying he knew little about them beyond a viral comment referencing Trump, made by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), that they were going to “impeach the motherf-----.”
“It might be unfair of me because I’ve only heard the voice of the lady from Michigan using the MF and the other stuff, so I don’t want to be unjust,” McCarthy said in a brief interview. “Let me learn who they are first.”
This freshman Democratic class is the largest since the election following Richard Nixon’s resignation. The Democrats in the 116th Congress include outspoken liberals like Tlaib and the group’s best-known member, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who at 29 is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. But there are also numerous lawmakers with more centrist leanings who knocked off GOP incumbents, in many cases winning in districts that had voted for Trump.
As some of their more liberal colleagues marched to McConnell’s office, several of these moderate-leaning freshmen attended a meeting with Trump at the White House as members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, a group that attempts to bridge the partisan divide to get solutions.
The freshman Democrats who went to the White House defied opposition from some colleagues, who warned they could end up playing into Trump’s hand as he sought to project a veneer of bipartisanship that didn’t reflect the reality of the impasse. But these lawmakers said they were representing constituents who sent them to Washington to get results, and they welcomed the chance to engage the president face-to-face even as some of their colleagues worked to apply public pressure from the outside.
“If I am given the opportunity to speak directly with the president and voice how the shutdown is hurting the people in my district, I think it would be a dereliction of my duty to not use that opportunity,” one of these lawmakers, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), a former CIA officer who won in a Trump district, said after the meeting with the president.
“I intend to a be very productive member of this caucus and that is exactly what I’m doing,” Spanberger said.
The disparate freshman approaches to dealing with the shutdown forecast tensions to come as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) presides over a push-and-pull from liberals calling for quick and dramatic moves on issues like health care and wages, as well as aggressive oversight of the Trump administration, counterbalanced by moderates interested in achieving bipartisan consensus, even if the results are more incremental.
But these freshmen are determined to deliver on campaign promises that broadly unite them in calling for improving the lives of working-class Americans by increasing access to affordable health care and good-paying jobs. Sworn in to the first Congress to convene amid a government shutdown, the members instead have encountered a capital where the dysfunction they campaigned against is deeper than many of them foresaw and where every other issue is secondary to resolving a crisis they had no role in creating.
The partial government shutdown that’s forced 800,000 federal workers to go without pay since Dec. 22 is impacting many of their constituents and impeding their desire to move forward on their campaign promises. Impatient, and in some cases nervous and uncertain about how to proceed, many of the freshmen concluded quickly that they could not stand by to wait and watch to see if Trump, Pelosi, McConnell and other leaders could find their way out of the impasse.
Instead they’ve acted, including with the impromptu visits to McConnell’s offices led by Neguse, Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), Ocasio-Cortez and others, which have been broadcast widely on social media, heightening focus on the shutdown among the grass-root activists who sent these lawmakers to Congress.
“I think one thing that a lot of members, especially members like Majority Leader McConnell are not prepared for, is the fact that 70 percent of our class are non-career politicians. We’re activists. We’re front line community leaders. We’re small-business owners, nurses, teachers,” Ocasio-Cortez said as she, Hill and others stood outside one of McConnell’s offices this week. “And we’re not going to operate in Washington the way that they have been.”
The freshmen’s efforts have been generally encouraged by Pelosi and her leadership team, who recognize them as a potent force with the ability to reach younger voters disinterested in the inside plays of more established politicians. The House was supposed to be on recess this coming week, which would have given the newcomers their first extended chance to go back to their districts and interact with their constituents at town hall meetings and other events. Instead, the House will be in session to vote on more bills to reopen government. Democratic leadership distributed talking points emphasizing that the party supports border security even while opposing Trump’s wall, but Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), the No. 4 House Democrat who chaired the House Democrats’ campaign committee during the midterms, said the freshmen know best how to talk to their voters.
“I have faith in our new members, in that they have many talents, and what we need to do is embrace those and unleash them,” Luján said in an interview. “The new members have been driving a conversation across America, whether it’s social media or it’s traditional media, that has already changed the conversation. You’ve seen public sentiment growing that is on the side of opening up the government.”
In some respects, today’s freshman class is similar to the tea party Republicans who flipped the House to GOP control in 2010 and came to Congress in a large unruly majority unwilling to hold back and wait their turn to be heard. Those Republicans ended up making the Congress largely ungovernable because of their tendency to oppose spending bills and other legislation needed to keep the government functioning. But the freshman Democrats generally say they believe in the ability of government to make a positive difference and are unlikely to pose the same threat to governance, especially because the first challenge they are confronting is to get government back open.
Still, some conservative Republicans see an echo of their years of political disruptions and high jinks in the actions of the Democrats who knocked them from the majority.
“The great thing about it, it’s freshman members engaging,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “And I certainly can applaud it and admire it from someone who believes that you shouldn’t have to wait around to make an impact on this place.”
Some of the freshmen said that they relish the challenge they’re confronting, even though reopening government was not the platform they ran on, nor what they expected to encounter as they arrived to bring a new era of divided government to Trump’s Washington.
“This is not how I thought my first weeks of Congress would be. That’s okay, because we were sent here for such a time as this, and this is the challenge affecting our country right now,” said Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.). “It’s so hard, it’s really fun, and I don’t use that word fun like roller coaster ride fun, but it’s a challenge, and it’s an honor to be able to do this work.”
Jenna Portnoy contributed to this report.