The massive class of freshman Democrats received one of Washington’s most bitter lessons this week, an education in long-standing congressional dynamics: House Republicans are the opposition, but the Senate is the enemy.
After Thursday’s vote to approve the Senate version of emergency border funding, the freshmen left the Capitol for a 11-day break with a look of stunned defeat. They were shocked to learn that Senate Democrats abandoned their House counterparts, jamming them in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion.
“Eat something from the Senate? Yeah, not ideal, not ideal,” Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) said after voting for the legislation.
“I voted my conscience, and we’ll continue to work through these issues, which are incredibly important to the country,” said Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), after opposing the legislation.
This was the sort of outcome that forced them to examine who they were, what kind of lawmakers that they wanted to be. Chasing the more perfect bill, they could charge into a fight that seemed certain to end in defeat. Or they could support a less admirable bill, in their eyes, but one that would quickly deliver $4.6 billion to a humanitarian crisis punctuated by images of children in cages and dead bodies along the Rio Grande.
This wasn’t how they envisioned the process or the policy when they took the oath of office six months ago — a 63-strong group that had flipped the majority and returned the speaker’s gavel to Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif), forming a new front against President Trump.
In many ways, whether from swing districts in the suburbs or majority-minority districts in the cities, these first-termers had vowed to change the way Congress does business. To make it function, at least a little better.
This vote, then, put to test the question that will define this new group: Are they changing Washington, or is Washington going to change them?
While the long-term answer remains to be determined, none of them enjoyed Thursday’s vote, gritting their teeth as they explained their rationale.
Washington seemed to be winning.
In all, 16 newcomers bucked Pelosi and opposed the legislation, people like Neguse, who was elected to serve as a freshman representative on the leadership team. He represents a left-leaning district anchored in Boulder, where the demand is high for more confrontation with Trump.
Neguse, 35, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, has already endorsed starting an impeachment inquiry. He pinned most of the blame on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who would not budge once his bill got 84 votes.
“The fact that the Senate majority leader yet again refuses to negotiate in good faith with our chamber and work cooperatively in a collaborative fashion is again, I think, unfortunate and inconsistent with the way Congress is supposed to work,” he said.
Democrats have a political designation for those incumbents facing difficult reelection, known as the “Frontline” program. Four of those swing-district freshmen opposed the Senate bill, and three more voted against the procedural vote to set up the debate on the bill.
But for more than two-thirds of the freshmen, the final bill was as good as anything that could pass. And the cost of a prolonged fight, probably ending up at the same dead end, would just mean delaying desperately needed funds on the border.
“I would have preferred to have stayed here and fought to improve it, but I wasn’t given that option with this vote,” Rose explained. “So then it’s a question of: Do you vote for something that you think represents progress? And that’s why I’m here.”
“None of this really makes sense. But the choice we had was: help these kids and families now or not? And so that’s the choice we made,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) said.
Rose and Malinowski are two of the “majority makers,” having flipped longtime GOP seats into the Democratic column.
Rose earned a Purple Heart during Army combat in Afghanistan, while Malinowski has served as a human rights lobbyist and as assistant secretary of state.
They are used to making hard choices, not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Malinowski, in fact, split the difference by voting against initiating debate and then voted for the final passage of the bill.
Some found even more unique ways to vote. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.), who represents a border district in El Paso, had pushed for specific funding streams that were in both the House and Senate versions of the legislation. But she was outraged by the Senate’s lack of mandated regulations for the treatment of children in custody.
She decided to vote against the bill — but only after she was certain that it would pass. Escobar and dozens of other Democrats stood on the House floor looking at the electronic voting board waiting to see the legislation had enough votes to pass before voting against it.
“I wanted to make sure the bill wouldn’t tank. There’s no way I would have voted no if I were a deciding vote,” she said.
Escobar summed up the frustration of most freshmen with her exasperation over how Pelosi and Senate Democrats were not on the same page, ending up with all but six Senate Democrats supporting the legislation backed by McConnell. “We definitely have to be on the same team, Senate Democrats and House Democrats,” Escobar said.
Malinowski explained: “We have a fragile foothold in the House of Representatives to fight against that. And it’s not always easy to do, given where the White House is and where the Senate is.”
John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), when he was the new speaker eight years ago, used to remind his GOP colleagues they controlled “one-half of one-third of the government,” against a Democratic Senate and president and an independent Supreme Court.
It sounded like Washington speak coming from Boehner, but this historic class of freshmen are confronting the limits of their power.
On a baking-hot Thursday afternoon, Rose looked at the Capitol and professed that he remained an optimist, that they could change the way Washington does business.
“But it ain’t going to be easy,” he said. “It ain’t going to be easy.”