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Meet the freshmen: New members of Congress arrive in DC eager to get to work

Sky makes way for beautiful sunset in Washington, D.C. on Election Day, Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo: ScottThuman, Sinclair Broadcast Group/WJLA)

New members of the 116th Congress arrived in Washington Tuesday with a large, diverse group of freshman Democrats eager to retake the majority in the House of Representatives.

The Congress members-elect will spend the next few weeks in D.C. learning the ropes, meeting their colleagues and party leadership and checking out their new office space before being officially sworn into office Jan. 3, 2019.

"We're all ready to buckle down and get to work," said Susan Wild, who was elected to serve Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District. Wild is one of four Democratic women elected in Pennsylvania. Before the Nov. 6 election, there were no women in the state's delegation.

Wild said she and her colleagues are excited to be making history, both in Pennsylvania and in a Congress where a record number of women will serve. "It's terrific. There's tremendous energy. There's excitement and enthusiasm," she said.

The freshman class in the House is the most diverse in U.S. history, demographically and ideologically. With some elections still undecided, the House of Representatives added at least 35 women to its ranks, bringing the total number of women serving in Congress to nearly 100 with another 23 women in the Senate.

The new Congress will also seat a record number of combat veterans, with a total of 92 serving in the House and Senate. U.S. voters also elected more minorities, more millennials. The clash of governing ideologies will also be dramatic, with a number of new Republicans sworn in after campaigning in lockstep with President Donald Trump, Democrats who opposed the president and even a self-declared Democratic socialist.

Incoming Rep. Veronica Escobar said she will be focused on fighting back against President Trump to reclaim the identity of her Texas border district.

"I live in a beautiful, safe, vibrant border community, El Paso, Texas. And border communities like mine, immigrant communities like mine have been maligned by our president and by his enablers in Congress," Escobar said. "That has to stop."

After two years of minimal congressional oversight by Republicans, incumbent Democrats have outlined an aggressive plan to investigate the Trump administration. Incoming committee chairmen have said they will subpoena the president's tax returns, look into possible conflicts of interest and investigate the administration's policies on immigration, family separations, protecting the environment and foreign affairs.

An overly aggressive anti-Trump agenda will be problematic for Democrats representing historically conservative districts or purple districts.

Kendra Horn became the first Democrat in more than 40 years to serve Oklahoma's 5th Congressional District. She credited her long shot victory to her ability to mobilize both liberal and conservative voters. Horn told reporters that voters sent her to Washington to continue that partisan approach, "reaching across the aisle when it's possible and standing up to the administration when that's the right thing to do.

Joe Morelle of New York stressed that the 116th Congress has to "strike a balance" between oversight investigations and legislating. "I don't want to cripple the presidency by having all the focus on the president be on investigations," he told Sinclair Broadcast Group. "We need to find common ground...I think that's what the American public wants."

Congressman-elect Harley Rouda of California is also in a position of taking over a GOP-held seat in California's 46th Congressional District. After a close race, Rouda defeated Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, ending his 30-year career in Congress.

Rouda told reporters that voters gave the new Congress a clear mandate to mandate to push back on the Trump administration. "I think what we’ve seen on a national basis is that the voting public wants to see some checks and balances in Congress," he said. At the same time, Rouda stressed that his top priority is pushing through a bipartisan infrastructure bill and addressing climate change.

Coming into Congress as a minority party, a few Republicans told reporters that they were also looking to reach across the aisle. Congressman-elect Mark Green of Tennessee said he will look for areas of bipartisan cooperation, including on health care. Green served as a physician in the Army and later worked in the health care industry.

In the coming weeks, both parties will select their leadership for next year, which will prove particularly difficult for new Democrats. At least a dozen freshmen campaigned for a new generation of leadership and against Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, who is expected to reclaim the speaker's gavel in January.

Horn acknowledged she will struggle with her vote. "I think it's one of those scenarios where it's a little bit challenging," she said. "I've said for a long time that I think we need new leadership at a lot of levels."

Donna Shalala of Florida fully endorsed Pelosi's leadership. "She's a skilled leader. She can manage the caucus, which is complicated, and frankly, she's responsible for passing 'Obamacare'," Shalala told reporters. Asked about possible opposition from new members who campaigned against Pelosi's speakers, the congresswoman-elect noted, "I think they know a first-rate leader when they see them."

Like other freshmen, Shalala is not new to Washington. She served as former President Bill Clinton's Health and Human Services secretary and campaigned aggressively on protecting the Affordable Care Act. "I'm used to testifying before them [Congress], I'm used to making policy with them, but I've never actually been a member myself. I think it's going to be a lot of fun," she said.

Eight freshmen Democrats are alumni of former President Barack Obama's administration or campaigns, including Lauren Underwood of Illinois who served in the Department of Health and Human Services. Deb Haaland of New Mexico worked on Obama's 2012 campaign and is one of only two Native Americans in the House. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey served in Obama's State Department, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan was involved in Muslim-American outreach and is one of two Muslim women elected to Congress this year.

Voters in Nevada also sent Steven Horsford back to Washington for a non-consecutive second term. Horsford will retake his seat representing the 4th District after being defeated by a Republican businessman in 2014.

Some members of Congress were informally sworn in Tuesday but still have another two months before they can officially begin their work in Washington.

Standing in the empty office of his predecessor in the Rayburn building, Morelle described the experience of being elected to Congress as "humbling." He noted, "I still get the chills when I look at the Capitol, so it's going to take a while getting used to looking out the window and seeing it there."

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