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First-Year Lawmakers on Their Time in Congress

By The NewsHour, The NewsHour - September 29, 2009

GWEN IFILL: There are 35 Democrats and 22 Republicans in this year's freshman class. Before coming to Washington, they were mayors, entrepreneurs, engineers, philanthropists and teachers. And once they arrived, they were immediately faced with a recession, an increasingly unpopular war, and a high-decibel health care debate.

How are they doing? We've invited four freshmen to join us here tonight, two Democrats, two Republicans.

Democrat Jared Polis represents Colorado's Second District, which includes the cities of Boulder and Vail. The founder of two charter schools, he has also launched several successful small businesses.

Democrat Donna Edwards represents Maryland's Fourth district, which includes Prince George's County and suburban Washington. She won her seat, on her second try, by defeating a 16-year incumbent.

Republican Cynthia Lummis is Wyoming's lone member of the House, representing the nation's least populous congressional district. She previously served as state treasurer and in the state house.

Republican Aaron Schock represents the 18th District of Illinois, which includes Peoria. At 28 years old, he is the youngest member of the Congress. Before coming to Washington, he served in the state house and as a school board president.

Welcome to you all.

Cynthia Lummis, I want to start and ask you the question I'm going to ask everybody, briefly. What's been your biggest surprise so far?

REP. CYNTHIA LUMMIS, R-Wyo.: Well, I've been surprised at how partisan Congress is. I came from a state where even though it's dominated by Republicans, there seems to be a very good bipartisan relationship in the Wyoming legislature, where I served.

And, for example, we have more even numbers on our committees. Every bill is debated. Every bill gets a hearing in committees. We have three readings on every bill, so you have an opportunity to read the bills. There's no incidents where a 300-page amendment is dropped on you at 3 a.m., then you're voting on it the same day. So the partisan aspects of it have been surprising to me.

GWEN IFILL: Donna Edwards, how about you?

REP. DONNA EDWARDS, D-Md.: Well, I think, you know, I share some of what Cynthia has said. I think it's been true that, while the policies and the politics are partisan, I've been able to develop, I think, really good relationships and friendships actually on the other side of the aisle. And I think that that took me a little bit by surprise, because it wasn't what I expected just watching on television. And so it's been a learning experience every day.

GWEN IFILL: Aaron Schock, I was surprised to hear that you were actually born in the 1980s. What has surprised you?

And I've been struck by the first nine months and how very partisan the House has operated in terms of really the minority's ability to offer thoughtful amendments and really get a hearing on the important pieces of legislation that have moved this year, the stimulus bill, cap and trade, now the health care debate.

We really haven't been as included as much as I would like to have been in that discussion. I think it's to the detriment of the American people, all of whom we represent, but also to the quality of the legislation that comes out. And I'm hoping that, as we move forward on the health care debate specifically, when it seems now that there's not a consensus on what the majority wants to do on health care, that there's going to have to be Republicans, Democrats on the health care bill, and hopefully we'll be a part of this important piece of legislation.

GWEN IFILL: What about that, Jared Polis?

REP. JARED POLIS, D-Colo.: You know, I found it to be bipartisan. Certainly in the bills that I've been working on, have co-sponsors from across the aisle. Sometimes I even have more Republicans than Democrats. And I think when people are working bills to get co-sponsors, they value both, important pieces of legislation of both.

But I've been very pleasantly surprised with is how the more senior members of the House, the committee chairs, the ranking members, take new members very seriously. And it's never been an issue.

And coming into it, you hear things about, oh, they don't give you the time of day until you've been there, you know, six years or, you know, you're not going to be able to talk to speakers or the minority leader. But they are, at least in my experience, extremely open and accessible, both on the floor and formally and informally through meetings.

GWEN IFILL: I wonder if, when you're in the majority, it feels more bipartisan than when you're in the minority. Is that possible?

REP. CYNTHIA LUMMIS: I think it is possible. I think the U.S. House is more of a winner-take-all arrangement, where the party in the majority really does control things. And that was not something with which I was accustomed.

GWEN IFILL: That said, Donna Edwards, I'll start with you. What are the priorities that you brought to Congress that you thought, "This is what I'm going there to do," that you've been able to do, and what has gotten lost in all of this activity?

REP. DONNA EDWARDS: Well, I feel I've been in a really great position. I mean, when I campaigned, I campaigned on bringing health care to the American people and developing an energy policy for the 21st century, on creating jobs certainly in my congressional district and around the country.

And although, you know, clearly, this president -- and this year we've been faced with a tremendous economic crisis, I think I've been able to get a word in edgewise on these debates, and that's been really important to me, and it's been important to the constituents in the Fourth District. So, you know, it feels really good right about now.

GWEN IFILL: It seems like getting a word in edgewise is the key for freshmen legislators, yet many of you came here talking about things like immigration. You campaigned on gay rights. You campaigned on government spending. And yet it seems like all the time is being spent on the economy and health care. What about that, Aaron Schock?

And they're looking to the Congress and to our leaders and asking, what are you doing to help incentivize entrepreneurs, to help incentivize risk-taking and investment so that we create more jobs and we grow our economy here in our country?

And those are issues that I came to Congress to work on. I'm a small-businessperson, an entrepreneur at heart, and I truly believe, you know, knowing that 60 percent of Americans get their paycheck from a small business, if we want to stimulate the economy, if we want to put people back to work, we've got to target growing our economy.

GWEN IFILL: Jared Polis, you were a businessman when you were in Colorado. In fact, you went home during the break, August break, and what did you call them, street corner...

REP. JARED POLIS: Congress on your corners.

GWEN IFILL: Congress on your corner. What did you hear?

REP. JARED POLIS: Well, we had about 23 different town halls, Congress on your corners. Overwhelmingly, people turned out to discuss health care. That's really what was in the news.

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