After seven weeks in Washington, Congress finally got a break. And no one needed it more than the freshmen Democrats.
The newbies spent their 10 days off fanned out across their districts, taking the political temperature. Many held town halls. (One legislator hosted six across his sprawling Upstate New York district.) Some met with their local newspaper’s editorial board. A couple held office hours.
Things stayed civil, mostly. One conservative voter asked Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) if she appreciated that her event had not devolved into a shouting match.
Very much, Spanberger told the crowd in Goochland.
“I know there’s quite a few people in the room who didn’t vote for me,” she said, “And I thank you very sincerely for being here.”
But Democrats could not dodge the national issues that have dominated their first weeks in office. Some constituents pressed them to oppose President Trump’s border wall; others tried to suss out their position on the “Green New Deal” to combat climate change.
Throughout the 2018 campaigns, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), now House speaker, advised candidates to steer clear of presidential scandals. Instead, she told would-be lawmakers to focus on bread-and-butter issues like child-care costs and infrastructure.
That was the mantra in January too. Newcomers were told to focus on what got them elected.
The 35-day shutdown of parts of the federal government shifted the script. But over the break, many freshmen tried to pivot back to local issues.
“There’s a lot going on in D.C. Some might say too much,” Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.) said at the beginning of his town hall meeting in Kingston, south of Albany.
At six events over a few days, Delgado focused on economic development and health-care costs. He embraced the idea of expanding Medicare to create a public competitor to private insurers.
On the other side of the country, Rep. TJ Cox (D-Calif.) railed against Trump’s “retribution and political gamesmanship.” But not for anything related to the national scandals consuming so much media attention. Instead, Cox used a visit to the Fresno Bee editorial board to blast the administration’s decision to nix a high-speed rail plan in California.
A few hundred miles south, in Orange County, Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.) also faced questions about the rail line. He accused Trump of bias against the liberal-leaning state.
“They’re not his dollars, they’re our dollars,” Rouda told constituents.
The lawmakers were following the game plan Democrats drew up after the midterms gave them a new majority, and a freshman class with more than 60 newcomers.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last year, now serves as assistant speaker, the No. 4 leadership post. In that role, he has been serving as an informal adviser to the freshmen. It’s a natural fit given his role in the election last year.
He wants them to be out in public, accessible to their constituents, setting up on street corners or outside grocery stores and holding committee field hearings whenever possible.
“You have to face your constituents, whether they agree with you on votes, or disagree with you on votes or policy,” Luján said in an interview before the session started Jan. 3.
But with high visibility comes risk, exposing politically vulnerable lawmakers to constituents with an agenda.
And it’s hard to keep national issues out of the town hall.
As Rouda spoke at a local high school, one of his constituents prominently displayed a Medicare-for-all sign in one of the front rows.
Spanberger and Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) faced questions about climate change, Trump’s wall and the 2020 presidential campaign.
“I am listening for common sense, pragmatism, and who is talking about manufacturing, who is protecting the value of work,” Stevens told her constituents.
The Washington Post’s Jenna Portnoy tallied the 10 questions Spanberger faced, and just two — one from a local logger and another from someone asking about rural broadband access — addressed issues that would be considered parochial. The rest dealt with immigration and border security, abortion rights, marijuana and other national hot-button topics.
Spanberger took a middle ground whenever she could, avoiding a clear position on how to fight climate change, for instance. “Overall, I am not a supporter of the Green New Deal,” she said.
Keeping things local will only get harder in the next few weeks. When lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday, they’re walking right into a political storm. On Tuesday, the House will vote on a resolution opposing Trump’s national emergency declaration to build the wall, launching a fight that could end with an attempt to override a presidential veto.
Soon after, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will wrap up his investigation. His report is expected sometime before the House leaves on March 14 for another extended recess.
Once that happens, things will almost certainly get messy.
Already, Pelosi and Democratic leaders are demanding that the Justice Department release the entire report to Congress. “The public is entitled to know what the Special Counsel has found,” six Democratic committee chairmen wrote Friday to Attorney General William P. Barr. “Congress could be the only institution currently situated to act on evidence of the President’s misconduct.”
But during his confirmation hearing, Barr said he would probably issue a summary of the findings instead. It’s a showdown that could end in a constitutional crisis.
It’s exactly the kind of political fight Democrats tried to avoid talking about last year.
It’s hard to imagine they’ll be able to do so for much longer.
Last week Spanberger — just like Stevens, Cox, Delgado and Rouda — faced no impeachment questions.
That might change by their next round of town halls in mid-March.