Democrats have a majority and wave of new members from Pa. and N.J. What will they do with it?
After two years out of power in Washington, Democrats in the U.S. House are pitching an agenda centered on ethics, attainable health care, and middle-class jobs — attempting to show they are watching out for the interests of everyday people.
WASHINGTON — After two years locked out of power in Washington, Democrats poised to take control of the House are pitching an agenda centered on ethics, attainable health care, and middle-class jobs — one that appears aimed at making the argument that they, and not President Trump, are watching out for the interests of everyday people.
Few of their big policy goals, if any, are likely to be realized with Trump in the White House and Republicans holding the Senate.
But their newfound majority still represents an opportunity to articulate their party's vision. In separate interviews, Democrats from the Philadelphia region listed campaign-finance reforms, shoring up the Affordable Care Act, a massive infrastructure program, raising the minimum wage, and strengthening gun laws as ambitions once they hold the House majority in January.
None of the three Democratic incumbents returning from the Philadelphia area has ever been in the majority, so they have had little chance to enact their priorities. They'll likely be joined by six Democratic freshmen, after the Associated Press on Wednesday said that New Jersey's tight Third District race had been won by Andy Kim.
The new crop includes four Pennsylvania women — breaking the all-male makeup of the state's delegation. The region's Republican representation will drop from six to one, with only Bucks County's Brian Fitzpatrick remaining. The new dean of the area's delegation will be U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, a Camden County Democrat who took office way back in 2014.
For those who have never held public office, their votes will begin building records that measure whether they live up to their campaign pledges.
First up, Democratic leaders have promised an ethics package including campaign finance reform that aims to reduce the influence of big money in politics, make political spending more transparent, and protect voting rights. The plan also could require presidential candidates to release their tax returns, as was long the norm but which Trump has refused to do.
"It goes to having faith in our government," said Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Delaware County Democrat who on Tuesday became the first of the newly elected local lawmakers to join Congress. She won a special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, who resigned earlier this year, allowing her to take office immediately.
"If I'm ranking priorities, first I'm ranking health care and infrastructure," said U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans of Philadelphia.
He and other Democrats talked up the idea of protecting the Affordable Care Act from further incursions by Trump, and restoring some provisions that have been undermined by the president.
Health care "was the number one issue that people talked about in terms of their daily lives," said State Rep. Madeleine Dean, who won in a congressional district that includes much of Montgomery County.
Democrats also called for pushing the minimum wage up to $15 — a counterpoint, they argued, to GOP tax cuts that provided the greatest benefits to wealthier taxpayers.
"If we can take care of the multimillionaires, we certainly can take care of those who are the most vulnerable," Norcross said.
He also argued for a bill to allow people to refinance their student debt, much like homeowners do with mortgages.
Each of the seven Democrats interviewed supported an infrastructure program to improve roads, bridges, and internet access, and create jobs. U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle of Philadelphia suggested that the push could be part of a compromise, noting that Trump previously voiced support for the idea.
"Hopefully now that we've won back the House and we don't have [Speaker] Paul Ryan in the way of blocking that, that's something we can achieve," Boyle said.
Both Dean and Chester County's Chrissy Houlahan stressed the importance of tightening gun laws.
In New Jersey, State Sen. Jeff Van Drew of Cape May County, who will represent the Second District, hoped federal lawmakers would craft immigration legislation with a mix of tighter border security and a legal solution for the millions of undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.
In many cases the ideas, days after the election, were still vague — more goals or principles than legislation.
And whatever the aims of local lawmakers, the House agenda will hinge mainly on the party's senior leadership, leaving rank-and-file members with limited opportunities to shape key legislation.
Just a week after the election, the Democratic newcomers are still learning about their new jobs, building staffs, and jockeying for committee assignments. They were in Washington this week for orientation, with more sessions to come.
On Twitter, Houlahan called it "Congress school" and posted photos of herself and fellow freshmen getting a candlelight tour of the Capitol.
Any legislation that does pass is likely to run into hurdles in the Senate.
With Democrats' House leader, Nancy Pelosi, also emphasizing oversight over the Trump administration, and the president vowing to fight back hard, the prospect of lingering feuds could short-circuit any major policy negotiations.
U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey has been one of the leading voices pushing to obtain Trump's tax returns, an issue Democrats almost certainly will revisit.
One of the key figures in the new majority could be U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone of Monmouth County. He is in line to chair the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has a sweeping jurisdiction including telecommunications, health care, energy policy, and interstate commerce.
Given the powers of the speaker, one of the most important votes the Democrats will cast could be whom they support as party leader.
Evans, Boyle, and Norcross all said they would back Pelosi — citing her experience as a negotiator and her role in leading the party back to power.
Most of the newcomers, however, were more equivocal, and Van Drew stuck to his pledge not to support Pelosi for speaker.
"She's a very able politician, but the reality is sometimes it's good to have a different look, a change," Van Drew said. "We do that all the time."
He also joked that there should be a resolution mandating that lawmakers "would act like normal human beings," a nod to yearnings many voters expressed for a kinder tone in the capital.
Boyle and Evans are aiming to climb the ranks. Each said he hoped to gain a seat on the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax law and has no Pennsylvania Democrats; only one of them, at most, is likely to land the coveted slot.
With freshmen typically shunted to less influential committees, several of the newcomers emphasized the importance of setting up their constituent service operations. Such local connections garner few headlines but often can leave lasting impressions at home.
"My first order of business is to make sure that we have a really great team" of staffers, Houlahan said.
Several of the newcomers — including Houlahan, Van Drew, Kim, and the Lehigh Valley's Susan Wild — come from competitive districts and easily could become campaign targets in 2020. They could face a balancing act in a majority that includes both Democrats who campaigned as moderates and young liberals who hope to pull the party to the left.