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Freshmen Come To Washington


Democrats took back control of the House of Representatives through votes from the suburbs. The party won seats in suburban California, Texas and Pennsylvania, along with many other states. Those brand-new lawmakers who gave Democrats their majority began to show up in Washington, D.C., this week for freshman orientation. NPR congressional correspondent Scott Detrow reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: After I do my shot, you can look anywhere you want. I need everybody right here.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: It's cold. It's windy. And the congressional class of 2019 is standing outside the Capitol without coats for a group photo. But they're all really happy about it. After all, it means they won.


DETROW: It's their first week here, but Texas Democrat Lizzie Fletcher says many of the freshmen had met before, so orientation had a little bit of a reunion feel.

LIZZIE FLETCHER: We all have talked about what worked, what didn't. But mostly, everyone's just excited to be here. And we feel like we made friends with each other on the trail. And so it's exciting to all get here together.

DETROW: As the class picture breaks up, Fletcher walks across Capitol Hill to her next event - a meeting of the Texas House delegation she'll join next year. The suburban Houston seat she won had been safely Republican for decades, ever since George Bush held it. Amid all the orientation sessions and meet and greets, Fletcher says one key moment was her first tour of the House floor.

FLETCHER: When you get a sense of the significance of this place and of what we're doing and what we've been sent here to do and all the people that have been here before us, it really is overwhelming in a wonderful way.

DETROW: Another highlight, something the Librarian of Congress told the new members.

FLETCHER: You guys can check out a book from here, and you're the only ones that can check things out of here. And that was pretty amazing.

DETROW: The reading may have to wait, though. There's a lot to do. Harley Rouda is one of the Democrats who turned Orange County, Calif., deep blue this year.

HARLEY ROUDA: Immediately, you're already working on understanding how to staff up, both here in D.C., but also in the district, renting space in the district and where you're going to live.

DETROW: There's also dealing with the media. Reporters swarmed the hotel where the new members were staying and had a lot of questions as the freshmen tried to check in.

Some of the incoming lawmakers look like they want to talk to the reporters, others aren't so sure. All of them are definitely being steered around by staffers who want to limit the amount of questions they're getting before they've even started.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I am so sorry, you guys, but I'm actually going to have to go.

DETROW: There are a lot of things that come naturally to longtime members of Congress that take some practice to master, like where exactly to look when you're talking to six different TV cameras.

MARY SCANLON: I think right now, we're still navigating the transition. I'm sorry. I'm new at this.

DETROW: That's Pennsylvania Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon, already sworn in as a new member because she's filling a vacant seat. Like every other new Democrat, Scanlon was peppered with questions about whether she'll back Nancy Pelosi to be House speaker.

SCANLON: Well, right now, as far as I understand, she's the only person running, so that makes for a very easy decision.

DETROW: Of course, not every freshman is brand new to D.C. Miami's Donna Shalala ran the Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration.

DONNA SHALALA: So it's going to be an interesting experience. I'm used to testifying before them. I'm used to making policy with them, but I've never actually been a member myself.

DETROW: No matter where they're coming from or what they did before, the new Democrats are all eager to get to work. Pennsylvania's Chrissy Houlahan says her first priority is pretty obvious.

CHRISSY HOULAHAN: Health care, health care, health care is, I think, something that was resoundingly a message that I heard for nearly two years of running, making sure that it's quality, affordable and accessible.

DETROW: Harley Rouda wants to see an infrastructure deal.

ROUDA: And we've also had infrastructure week every week for 50 straight weeks into the Trump administration. It would be nice to actually see a bipartisan effort and success there.

DETROW: What's their mandate from voters? Most Democrats agree with Lizzie Fletcher.

FLETCHER: They want to see our Congress work, our government work. They want to see Congress perform its essential functions as a coequal branch of government.

DETROW: That all starts in January. For now, Houlahan and all the other Democrats are getting used to their new surroundings.

HOULAHAN: Many of us, not surprisingly, are pretty Type A people. And so we have challenged each other to try and actually enjoy the opportunity in the moment, to breathe a little.

DETROW: Because there probably won't be much room for introspection once the voting starts. Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.