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Politics & Government

New Members Of Congress Adjust To Working On Capitol Hill

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

With the swirl of controversy over Russian hacking, Obamacare and more, it's easy to forget that there were 55 new faces on Capitol Hill this week.

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PAUL RYAN: Do you solemnly swear that you will support and defend the Constitution of the United States?

CORNISH: This year's freshman class survived one of the most bruising and divisive elections in memory, but we're going to meet two new lawmakers who were all smiles - Florida Democrat Val Demings and Michigan Republican Paul Mitchell.

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RYAN: Congratulations, you are all now members of the 115th Congress.

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PAUL MITCHELL: My name is Paul Mitchell. I'm from Michigan's 10th Congressional District, now the congressman from that district.

VAL DEMINGS: Val Demings, representing Florida's 10th Congressional District.

MITCHELL: It's a great day here. I think it was leader McCarthy said if you walk in this building, you walk on the floor of the House and you don't get goosebumps, it's time to go home.

DEMINGS: Two of my sons are here, as well as two siblings. I think the last time my siblings were in D.C., they were in middle school. But then to be back to see their baby sister sworn in as a member of the 115th Congress is such an honor for our family.

MITCHELL: I grew up in a working class family. My dad built trucks on the line. I was the oldest of seven. I was the first of my extended family even go to college, never mind graduate. And I was able to get to a point that I was CEO of a company. I helped people develop skills so they could go to work, and now I'm a member of Congress. Only in America does that happen.

CORNISH: The honeymoon was over quick. The message wars launched over the future of Obamacare. Neither Demings - a former police chief - nor Mitchell - a former CEO of a job training company - had experience in legislating. We sat down with them to find out what it's like getting thrown in the deep end. For instance, Congressman Mitchell watched a story that blew up his first day, when Republicans tried to make changes to an independent ethics office and immediately had to backtrack.

MITCHELL: You know, I wasn't aware that it was a conversation that was going on until we went to conference that evening.

CORNISH: And it was considered a surprise to everyone.

MITCHELL: Apparently not everyone. There's some - apparently there was some chat...

CORNISH: Yeah.

MITCHELL: ...Discussion going on with various people in leadership, but it wasn't shared with the majority of the conference that I'm aware of.

CORNISH: But did you basically have to get up to speed all of this in a day?

MITCHELL: Oh, yeah. That's life here. I guess the good news is when you're CEO of a company, stuff happens that you don't get to predict in the morning, and you better figure out what's going on.

CORNISH: I want to ask you one or just two questions from Facebook because...

MITCHELL: From Facebook? Whoa.

CORNISH: ...We put out this call to our listeners to ask them, you know, what would you want to know from a freshman lawmaker in their first week? And this one comes from Marty Wayman (ph) from Frankfort, Ky.

MITCHELL: Sure.

CORNISH: She poses it this way. She thinks you're in a difficult position. She says whether to curry favor with a multimillionaire unrealistic out of touch administration, or branch off within your party and risk being punished and becoming as ineffective as the Democrats.

MITCHELL: I ran on - with my voters - I ran on what I believe are the key issues, which are extreme regulatory oversight that in my opinion doesn't create a better economy, doesn't create jobs. You can't regulate a better economy. I ran on fixing our health care system because - just because health - you have health insurance doesn't mean you have quality health care. I'm going to pursue the things that I told the voters in Michigan in my district I would do. I didn't run for office based on a tweet from Donald Trump or anybody else, and I'm - my responsibility is to be effective for my constituents.

CORNISH: Malik Shaw (ph) of Forest Grove, Ore. has this question. He says regarding the issue of Obamacare in your state, what do you feel is most essential - preserving the bits that work or eliminating the bits that don't?

MITCHELL: You can't have that kind of dichotomy even as there are components of it that you like. If we don't fix the system, all of it collapses in one massive, you know, groan.

CORNISH: So you don't see a piecemeal way to deal with it?

MITCHELL: That wasn't the question, though. The question is, which is more important? How I believe it's going to be dealt with is there will be a process to repeal the Affordable Care Act. There will be a transition process in place. We can't have anybody losing health coverage, but the current system is going to collapse on its own weight if we don't fix it, and I believe as firmly as possible.

CORNISH: But you think your party is ready with an alternative?

MITCHELL: We will be ready with an alternative. Is every nuance of it together? No. But back in my district, the 10th congressional district, I'm putting together a health care task force so we can talk about key things that need to be in our health package going forward. Now, I don't believe a freshman can rewrite the Affordable Care Act, but I believe I can have an impact in terms of some key things need to be there. I'm going to engage in that process so we can in fact make sure people are heard.

CORNISH: Val Demings is in a different position. While the Democrat won her district, Florida went to Trump. I asked the former Orlando police chief what she thought the message was from her voters on Obamacare.

DEMINGS: The Affordable Health Care Act has not been perfect. But I do believe and I know my constituents believe as opposed to just throwing it away, abandoning the millions of people who now have coverage including seniors and children, let's work together to make it better. Let's work together to lower the premiums.

CORNISH: Does that mean working with the other party? Do you feel like you're in a position to cross the aisle yourself as a Democrat?

DEMINGS: What the Republicans will tell you is that every American in this country should have access to quality health care, and so that opens the door for us to work together to deliver to the American people quality health care. I know for a fact that the Affordable Health Care Act does that. What I am hoping is that my Republican colleagues, who many I've met, they are people who are coming here from various backgrounds and we talked about let's be different. Let's work hard to find some common ground.

CORNISH: We asked our listeners on Facebook for what questions they might have for a freshman lawmaker, and one of them asked something I think goes to your point. Her name is Becky Zimmer-Ryan (ph). And she says, why should we trust that you'd be able to close party divisions and actually get things done? What makes you immune to the inertia that has gripped Washington for two decades?

DEMINGS: I'm coming out of a job where I was held accountable every day. I'm coming from a job where the media practically visited our department every day. Everybody has their role for the time that they've been here, and I honor and commend and applaud anybody who's willing to put themselves and their family through public service. Because if you're committed to doing it right, it comes with a great responsibility, but it can come - it can be like bringing on the weight of the nation on your shoulders. But because of what I've done, I believe that should give Becky and others great hope.

CORNISH: You can see why she's asking, right? It's like the first week of Congress.

DEMINGS: I understand.

CORNISH: It's like the president comes and only speaks to his party. The vice president-elect comes and only speaks to his party. It looks like it's baked in, this division.

DEMINGS: Maybe the president - and I will never speak for President Obama - but maybe he felt like his party would be the only ones listening. Change begins at home, and so I see no issue at all with the president working with and working on his home team. And now let's get on the field.

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