House Democrats Play Catch-Up On Agenda After Shutdown

Feb 4, 2019
Originally published on February 4, 2019 7:26 am

Democrats officially took control of the House of Representatives one month ago with a promise of moving quickly on a fresh agenda centered on protecting health care and making Washington work better.

Until last week, those plans were on pause. Committees couldn't form, legislation stalled and their whole message was about ending the shutdown. Now, as Washington returns to legislating with a three-week period to focus on a spending deal, Democrats are working to catch up before Trump takes center stage with a prime-time State of the Union address delivered from their home turf — the House floor.

"There's no question that the government shutdown consumed everyone's attention," said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I. "The president I think did that purposefully."

Cicilline, who leads a team of Democrats tasked with setting policy and messaging priorities, said he believes Trump deliberately timed the shutdown to take the wind out of Democrats' sails.

But Cicilline and other top Democrats say that's changing now. Committee members have been announced, staff is coming on board and Democrats have begun to introduce a backlog of bills, like a revival of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act legislation aimed at closing the gender pay gap.

That legislation, paired with HR 1, a bill to reform campaign and ethics rules, were the backbone of Democrats' messaging in the single week of open government before the State of the Union.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., says members will have even more chances to make their mark in the weeks to come.

"There's this frustration about focusing on the negative aspect of shutting down the government of the United States of America," Hoyer said in an interview with NPR. "But I think they're going to feel a lot better four months from now because I think we're going to have dealt with a lot of very substantive issues that we talked about in the campaign."

Hoyer says committees are getting ready to take up plans to lower the cost of prescription drugs and move bills designed to retrain workers and get more people higher paying jobs.

And some Democratic lawmakers say they have the opportunity to launch their agenda with new attention now that the shutdown is over. Democrats in Congress have higher than usual approval ratings after the shutdown, and polls showed a majority of voters sided with Democrats in that fight.

Members like Progressive Caucus Co-chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., say that gives Democrats a powerful platform.

"We didn't back down on this president and we showed that we will hold him accountable," Jayapal said. "That got us enormous credibility with the American public.

But that may not be helpful for many of the more moderate Democrats who won tough races in previously Republican districts on promises to overcome gridlock.

That's why losing the early weeks of legislating has been particularly frustrating for a lot of freshmen. They wanted a head start before the State of the Union, where Trump will set his own agenda.

And their class co-chair, Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, says his fellow newbies are itching to show their constituents that they can deliver on their campaign promises.

"We are the class that delivered the majority and we are the class that I think in many ways is closest to the people," Allred said. "We want to make sure folks that have been here are aware of what our priorities are."

Specifically, Allred says Democrats want to protect pre-existing conditions, the defining issue that helped them win this new majority. Focusing narrowly on policies with broad support also helps Democrats avoid internal bickering over more complicated issues — like the finer details of how far left the party can go in embracing a "Medicare-for-all" proposal.

"Those are things that no matter where you are on the spectrum you have a common denominator of agreement," Allred said. "Those complicated areas — like how far left to go on Medicare-for-all will wait."

Plus, as Hoyer and Jayapal are quick to remind members, there's still lots of time before the 2020 election begins.

"A lot of members just spent the last year, two years in some cases, campaigning, so a few weeks feels like a lifetime," Jayapal said. "We're in January, we're not in June. If this is still the case in June that would be a problem."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Democratic control of the House of Representatives gives the party a chance to set the national agenda - a chance; not a guarantee. The Democrats' first four weeks were consumed by a high-stakes shutdown standoff with President Trump that is not quite over yet. They've tried to catch up, though, ahead of President Trump's prime-time State of the Union address tomorrow night. NPR's Kelsey Snell reports.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: The Democrats came into power in the House with a long list of plans. They wanted to kick off the year by overhauling campaign and ethics rules before launching bills on everything from health care and prescription drugs to building better roads and bridges. Instead, their earliest days in office have been defined by President Trump.

DAVID CICILLINE: There's no question. The government shutdown, you know, consumed everyone's attention. The president, I think, did that purposely.

SNELL: That's Congressman David Cicilline. He leads a team of Democrats tasked with setting up policy and messaging priorities for the House. Up until last week, those plans were on pause. Committees couldn't form, legislation stalled and their whole message was about ending the shutdown. Now that it's over, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer says it's up to Democrats to make up for lost time. And he promises anxious members, we'll have a chance to do it soon.

STENY HOYER: There's this frustration about focusing on the negative aspect of shutting down the government of the United States of America. But I think they're going to feel a lot better four months from now because I think we're going to have dealt with a lot of very substantive issues that we talked about in the campaign.

SNELL: Hoyer says committees are getting ready to take up plans to lower the cost of prescription drugs and move bills to retrain workers and get more people good paying jobs. Democrats have higher-than-usual approval ratings after the shutdown, and polls show a majority of voters sided with Democrats in that fight. Members like progressive caucus co-chair Pramila Jayapal say that gives Democrats a powerful platform.

PRAMILA JAYAPAL: We didn't back down on this president, and we showed that we will hold him accountable. That got us enormous credibility with the American public.

SNELL: But that may not be helpful for many of the more moderate Democrats who won tough races in previously Republican districts on promises to overcome gridlock. That's why losing the early weeks of legislating has been particularly frustrating for a lot of freshmen. They wanted a head start before the State of the Union where Trump will set his own agenda. And their class co-chair Colin Allred says his fellow newbies are itching to show their constituents that they can deliver on their campaign promises.

COLIN ALLRED: We are, at its outset, delivering to a majority. And we are the class that, I think, in many ways, is closest to kind of the people. And so we want to make sure that folks who've been here are aware of what our parties are.

SNELL: Specifically, Allred says Democrats want to protect pre-existing conditions, the defining issue that helped them win this new majority.

ALLRED: Those are things that no matter where you are on the spectrum, you have a common denominator of agreement. And then we'll probably have some discussions on the things that are a little bit different.

SNELL: More complicated areas like how far left to go on Medicare for all will wait. The slow start is beginning to pick up. Democrats held their first hearings and reintroduced legislation to close the gender pay gap. More experienced hands like Hoyer and Jayapal also want to remind members that there's still lots of time before the 2020 election.

JAYAPAL: You know, we're in January. (Laughter) I mean, we're not in June. You know, if this is still the case in June, that would be a - that would obviously be a problem.

SNELL: Vulnerable Democrats are hoping she's right because by June, their next campaign could already be underway. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HAGGIS HORNS' "CURSE OF THE HAGGIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.