New Democratic representatives sworn in to 116th Congress

New congressional leaders put their political power to the test on their first day on the job. As constituents flooded office hallways and stray boxes were unpacked, the incoming congressional class was getting its foothold in a government caught in gridlock. Thursday is Day 13 of a shutdown and all eyes are on the elected leaders who promised to usher in a new era.

“The American people overwhelmingly do not want to spend billions of dollars building walls around our country and they overwhelmingly don’t want to shut down the government over the crazy idea of a wall. I think it’s going to be very difficult for Senate Republicans to sustain this position,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski.

“I mean, we should be here working on this 24/7 until we get it done and people should go in a room, close the door, lock the door, and throw away the key and get it done,” said Rep. Jeff Van Drew.

NJTV News caught up with New Jersey’s newest House members during a chaotic day of handshaking and vote taking. The first order of business for the new class was electing a new speaker. Malinowski, who beat 7th District incumbent Leonard Lance, and political newcomer Andy Kim, who ousted Republican Tom MacArthur in South Jersey, both voted in favor of Nancy Pelosi.

“I have spoken to Speaker-designate Pelosi, soon-to-be speaker, and obtained a very strong commitment from her to support funding for the Gateway Tunnel project and to support our efforts to restore the SALT deduction. Those were my two requests,” Malinowski said.

“I think it’s critical for us to come out and make sure we move forward, and that’s why I’ve taken the actions that I have,” Rep. Andy Kim said. “I want to make sure, for me, I’m looking out for the district. Everything that I’m doing is what’s best for Burlington County and Ocean County.”

But it was a different approach for former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor Mikie Sherrill and former state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, whose districts are more closely aligned with the GOP brand. If you utter “Pelosi” there, you’re likely to step on a land mine.

“It was a commitment I made to the people in my district,” Van Drew said. “Many people in my district thought it was time for change, something new. That’s not to say that she’s a bad woman or anything awful, but just felt that there were so many preset notions, and ideas, and conflicts that have existed for so long that perhaps it was time to do something different.”

Van Drew is already positioning himself as a pragmatic member. It’s something the new class holds in high regard.

“Josh Gottehimer told me the other day that I’m going to be a new member of the Problem Solvers [Caucus],” he said.

But when it comes to budget talks, some are already digging in their heels when it comes to the House passing a package of six spending bills Thursday that would reopen government. Though its fate in the Senate, or landing on the president’s desk, is most certainly unlikely.

“I don’t believe we should be negotiating with the president because I don’t trust the president to stick to one position for more than two hours. I think we need to be negotiating with each other here in the Congress. Republicans and Democrats need to try to block out the craziness coming from the White House and make deals among each other,” said Malinowski.

“If the president is insistent on $5 billion, that’s just not going to happen. And I think one of the rude awakenings for the president is to understand that there is a separate, coequal branch of government that now has a different majority and will exercise its majority in its best discretion on behalf of the American people,” Sen. Bob Menendez said.

And while House and Senate members got right to work, receptions celebrating their inauguration were happening all over Capitol Hill. Gov. Phil Murphy is hosting a party with the New Jersey Democratic State Committee at the Mandarin Oriental on Thursday.

“This delegation is incredibly fired up. We’ve already met with them, the executive branch, our branch, and them and their teams. Lots of optimism that we can do better on infrastructure, things like the Gateway Tunnel, the Portal Bridge, preserve health care,” said Murphy.