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House Democrats Play Catch-Up On Agenda After Shutdown

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her colleagues are touting legislation to close the gender pay gap — a proposal they promised to address during the 2018 midterms.
J. Scott Applewhite
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her colleagues are touting legislation to close the gender pay gap — a proposal they promised to address during the 2018 midterms.

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."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.