The start of the new Congress was supposed to be all about the historic freshman class. Instead, it’s been all about the historic government shutdown — and frustrated House Democrats are looking to change that.
When a handful of new members huddled Tuesday morning to strategize, Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.) suggested sending a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) demanding he reopen the government.
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Lawmakers liked the idea, according to members who attended the planning session, but it would take some time to pull it together.
“Why don’t we do something today?” suggested Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.). “Let’s just go over there.”
Hours later, the group marched from an impromptu, outdoor news conference to McConnell’s Capitol office, with reporters and cameras in tow.
It was the first in a series of moves freshman Democrats are planning to put their own stamp on the bitter battle over President Donald Trump’s border wall and a shutdown that has consumed the start of their congressional careers.
“One thing [Trump’s] proven to be very good at … is taking the attention and controlling the narrative,” Hill said. “So we’re trying to do what we can to pull that back as much as possible.”
Members are growing restless — though not ready to bend to Trump — over the fact that the newly empowered House Democratic Caucus has had to devote its attention and resources toward the standoff, now in its 27th day and the longest in U.S. history.
“This is not how I thought my first weeks of Congress would be,” said Rep. Lauren Underwood, a 32-year old Democrat from Illinois. “That’s OK. Because we were sent here for such [a] time.”
The new lawmakers are hoping to use the group’s collective star power to help get their message across.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a 29-year-old liberal firebrand who has 2.4 million Twitter followers, can’t walk around the Capitol without being swarmed by a throng of reporters and photographers. The new Congress has also garnered widespread media attention for having more minorities, women and young people than ever before.
“We collectively have more attention, more of a public voice, than probably most of the other members at this point,” Hill said. “So how can we use that to our advantage?”
“We continue to exhaust every single legislative option, but now I think we just have to find ways to get creative and build that pressure,” added Ocasio-Cortez.
One of the tactics they discussed during their sit-down meetings and in informal conversations, according to lawmakers, is how to leverage social media to keep the pressure on the GOP. So when they swarmed McConnell’s office on Tuesday, they also debuted a new hashtag: #whereismitch.
The next day, they decided to hand deliver their letter — signed by 30 House freshman — to McConnell’s office. And later that night, they took turns delivering a series of speeches on the House floor. The so-called “special order speeches” usually disappear into the C-SPAN ether, but these caught notice on Twitter.
The freshmen’s moxie has caught some veteran lawmakers by surprise.
“I was talking to a senator last night. He said he was here 16 years in the House and never stepped foot on the Senate side,” Underwood said. “We’ve been here for two weeks, and I’ve been over twice, searching all around for Sen. McConnell to say: ‘Sir, do your job.’”
The campaign hasn’t been flawless. At one point during their journey to McConnell’s office, they realized they had run out of copies of their letter and asked for one back. McConnell’s office was nice enough to print them extra copies.
The day before, the group of lawmakers hit a snag when some of their staffers forgot their ID badges and couldn’t get into the Senate after the news conference.
But members involved in the strategy sessions said they are used to the more on-the-fly approach, and dismissed the notion that their effort was simply a publicity stunt.
“We all came from grassroots campaigns that were not traditional, and they worked,” said Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.).
Some freshmen, however, prefer less confrontational tactics.
Democratic Reps. Max Rose of New York and Dean Phillips of Minnesota, who both represent swing districts, joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers for a meeting with Trump at the White House on Wednesday, though the talks yielded little progress.
Newly elected Democrats say they all share the same goal: getting the government reopened. The freshman group may meet again next week to hash out their next moves if both sides are still dug in.
“This class was sent here to shake things up,” said the 34-year-old Joe Neguse (D-Colo.). “We’re not going to sit idly by.”
John Bresnahan and Heather Caygle contributed to this report.