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Freshmen Representatives Review Time In Office Under President Trump

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Even the most seasoned lawmaker might have whiplash after these first few weeks of the new administration. There have been executive orders on refugees and immigrants from the Trump White House answered with legal challenges and public protests and calls to Congress to do something. Just imagine if you were a member of the House and brand new at the job.

PAUL MITCHELL: Has it really been 60 days? I - yeah, it feels like it has been longer than that. The intensity is a pretty amazing thing. Any given day, this is full-tilt boogie around here some days. It truly is.

VAL DEMINGS: You know, it's been an extremely fast pace. I've been here less than - well, right about 60 days, and it feels like one big day.

CORNISH: That's Val Demings, a Florida Democrat - before her, Paul Mitchell, a Republican from Michigan. These two freshmen legislators have been front and center on the action. Mitchell even got his first bill passed.

Well, congratulations on passing your first bill.

MITCHELL: That's great. I appreciate that. I'm anxious to...

CORNISH: It's kind of a big deal (laughter).

MITCHELL: It'll be a bigger deal when it gets through the Senate and gets to the president's desk. Then I may actually sit down and have a beer or a glass of wine.

CORNISH: We've been following their progress since they were sworn into office and caught up with them again today.

DEMINGS: Hello, hello.

CORNISH: Hi, Congresswoman Demings. How are you?

DEMINGS: I'm doing well. How are you?

CORNISH: Both Mitchell and Demings got plum spots for newbies on the House Oversight Committee, but that doesn't guarantee power and influence, especially if you're a committee member from the minority party.

DEMINGS: I don't think a whole lot about being in the minority because right and wrong does not change. And so I think that we can be a loud, strong voice calling for investigations, calling for oversights, calling for transparency. And I also believe that - and I think we've seen some of this - that our Republican colleagues - at least some of them - are doing the same thing.

CORNISH: Now, you also got to hold your first town hall as a member of Congress. The focus was health care. And at that town hall, people didn't want you to work with Republicans. They wanted you to resist any changes to Obamacare. So even if you wanted to go looking for common ground, could you?

DEMINGS: Well, I'll tell you this. There will always be some issues where you can find common ground. I think infrastructure, transportation, technology. And then there will be some where there is no room for common ground, and the ACA is one of those areas.

CORNISH: But let me jump in for a second 'cause the last...

DEMINGS: In fact - let me - what I've asked...

CORNISH: But the last time we spoke, you said that you were coming there as a new person (laughter) and that you were meeting with Republican colleagues and saying, let's be different. You said, let's find the common ground.

DEMINGS: That's right, but not - I never said that we will find compromise in every area. What I said - and I remember it vividly - is that we will work together when we can and where we can. But the Affordable Care Act covers 20 million people who otherwise would not have coverage. Sixty-thousand people within the district that I represent have it. And the question is simple. If you believe that every person living in a country that we say is the greatest country in the world should not have coverage, then tell me who shouldn't have it.

CORNISH: Now, before I let you go, I want to ask you about the joint address to Congress this week by the president. You were among those lawmakers - I think all women - who were wearing white in solidarity in the audience of that speech. How did you hear that? Like, kind of what's your review, in a word?

DEMINGS: You know, I think the first responsibility - well, there are a couple - of the president of the United States is to keep her safe but - number two - to unite. The travel ban, which is the Muslim ban, divides our country. The way he uses crime and always associates crime with African-American communities further divides our country. So, look; I want to give him a chance, but every opportunity that he's taken, he further divides. And I was disappointed with his speech the other night, and we're still waiting.

MITCHELL: I am fond of my fellow freshman Val Demings. Unfortunately, I think in her role within the Democratic Caucus - the conference - she's talking to party line.

CORNISH: Republican Congressman Paul Mitchell, needless to say, had a very different take, and he's taken a different approach to the debate on health care. Unlike Demings in Florida, he has not held town hall meetings in Michigan, opting instead for a tele-town hall and smaller, more intimate constituent meetings.

MITCHELL: In the campaign, I did over 700 events around the district, different sizes ranging from mid-teens to several hundred, met thousands of voters as we went through the campaign process. When I was in the district last week, I had to go through a number of meetings we had. Educators that were representing Michigan Education Association - there were folks that wanted to talk about Medicare Advantage. Others wanted to talk about Alzheimer's and the issues there.

CORNISH: So there are formal sit downs that you had.

MITCHELL: Absolutely. And the entire time I ran, I never had what some people call a town hall. We've seen nationally - and you've seen it - that these town halls that they're referring to most - not all, but most - devolve to yelling, screaming and waving signs. It's having a circus, and I'm not going to participate in a circus.

CORNISH: But if you're not in a special interest group, how do they get on Congressman Mitchell's calendar?

MITCHELL: Audie, the Education Association isn't a special interest group. They're teachers in the district. There - there's groups for everything to help people communicate. And calling them special interest groups is kind of this cabal - doesn't accurately reflect the township supervisor and a bunch of firefighters.

So they can talk if they want. We've done 5,000 - over 5,000 responses to letters and emails. I think 500 phone calls were returned. I've returned a bunch of them myself. So they get communication. The demand is, quote, "public town hall," which is, we want our media minute. They can have whatever media time they want. Do that on their own.

CORNISH: The last time we spoke, people were just gearing up on the repeal effort, and now they're on the - basically the replacement effort - right? - like, figuring out a draft, figuring out the details of what they want. Now, that first draft that came out of the House got really mixed reviews, and there were Republicans who said, look; this tax credit plan you have to replace the Obamacare subsidies - it's another entitlement program. And you have others who said, you know, this attempt to preserve some things and add new things - it's going to look like Obamacare lite. What's your response to that?

MITCHELL: Well, I think my response to that is the president spoke about what he expects on health care on the repeal and replacement of Obamacare as was referred to very clearly on Tuesday night. Next week sometime I guess is - we're - based on that feedback I have, we're going to start to roll out the actual bills through the next stage in a multi-stage effort to repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.

There's not going to be competing versions. There's going to be a version of the bill. And there's going to be plenty of time over God knows how long around here to have a bunch of policy entrepreneurs that wish to have their version of what they think is perfect. We can't let someone's personal version of perfect get in the way of accomplishing something.

CORNISH: You know, unlike our freshman Democrat who's dealing with being in the party that's out of power, you're in the position of seeing what it's like to be the party in power but not in agreement. What's frustrating about that?

MITCHELL: I don't know if the party's not in agreement. I think just people have perspectives. They express their perspectives. Things coalesce down to, what are we going to do? And then we vote.

CORNISH: That was Representative Paul Mitchell of Michigan and Representative Val Demings of Florida. We'll catch up with them throughout this, their first term in Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUNGLE SONG, "BUSY EARNIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.