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House Freshmen Feel the Call to Action After State of the Union Address

February 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In his State of the Union Address, Pres. Obama called Congress to address climate change, gun control, and federal budget. Judy Woodruff talks with four House freshmen, Krysten Sinema, D-Ariz; Joaquin Castro, D-Texas; Luke Messer, R-Ind.; and Doug Collins, R-Ga., about their new positions and the president's priorities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Immigration, climate change, gun control, the budget, these are just a few of the issues President Obama called on Congress to address Tuesday night in his State of the Union address. How do some of the newest faces in the 113th Congress view their job and the president’s priorities?

We ask four freshman lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, two Democrats, Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, Texas, and former state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema represents the Phoenix suburbs in Arizona, and two Republicans, former Indiana state lawmaker Luke Messer, who also headed his state party, and Doug Collins of Georgia, who also came up as a state legislator. The president was in Decatur today, just outside Collins’ district.

And welcome to all four of you.

Congressman Collins, I’m going to begin with you.

The president’s State of the Union address, his message, what do you think you can work with him on? What did you hear?

SEN. DOUG COLLINS, R-Ga.: Well, I think we can agree on the points that what we want to see in this economy is a growing, vibrant economy. And that’s for all levels.

I think when we work on that and we begin to focus on the things that matter, and that’s job creation, getting the ability for the free enterprise system to work, I will take the president at his word that he wants a strong and robust economy. I think the differences will come in the implementation of that, but I agree, we can work together on building the economy that I believe the Americans deserve.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congresswoman Sinema, what about you? What did you hear from the president that lifted your spirits and that you think you can work with him on?

REP. KYRSTEN SINEMA, D-Ariz.: Well, I’ll tell you, the thing that was most exciting for us in Arizona was the president’s comments on mortgages.

In Arizona, we’re still number one in the foreclosure crisis. And so the president’s comments about helping middle-class families get loan modifications and refinance options, that will help middle-class families who are struggling to do what’s right, keep their homes and keep their jobs. It will help them a lot.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Messer, what about you?

REP. LUKE MESSER, R-Ind.: Well, I was encouraged by the president’s focus on jobs. I may not agree all the specifics, but appreciate his focus on jobs.

I was disappointed by his lack of specifics on spending. I believe those are the elephants in the room for our country right now, and we need leadership on all those topics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Castro, did that bother you, that the president wasn’t more specific about what cuts he’s prepared to make?

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO, D-Texas: Well, no, I think that he’s been talking about a balanced approach for a long time.

And we know that he’s committed to doing both, to raising revenue and making cuts. But he’s also said before that he’s not going to negotiate with himself. The Republican Party has been pushing these cuts for a long time. And it’s incumbent upon them to come up with a plan to do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Collins, let me come back to you. You said you liked what the president had to say about the focus on the middle class and jobs.

And yet, when we look at the Congress, it does look at if the two parties have having a hard time working together. Do you think you can make a difference in that?

DOUG COLLINS: Well, I believe we can.

I think the interesting thing, though, is — Judy, is this. Yes, I’m glad that he spoke about the economy. I’m also disappointed, like Congressman Messer, that there wasn’t a lot of specifics.

And to cover the point, the Republicans have presented plans. In fact, the Republicans have sent two plans over from the last Congress. None of these have been acted upon. I think another thing, if we want to be specific about the State of the Union, I was a lot more disappointed about what wasn’t said. And there was a lot of political pomp and circumstance in this, but we heard nothing about not only specifics in economics. We also heard nothing about Benghazi.

There were a lot of different things we didn’t hear about in this speech that I think was very disappointing from my perspective.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Benghazi, and why should the president have talked about that?

DOUG COLLINS: I think, when you end speech the way he did with — and concerning guns and the terrible, horrific things that have happened in our country by some very sick and twisted individuals, but yet you do not mention the fact that we lost an ambassador and three others in Benghazi in one of our embassies, and even — not even from the sense of saying that we’re continuing the process of strengthening our embassies and looking at it around the world, I think it was just to me a glaring omission and something that when you look at the non-specifics.

And then a lot of, to be honest, the campaign rhetoric of the rest of the speech, that was concerning to me about what wasn’t said.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congresswoman Sinema, what about that? Should the president have gone into more detail on Benghazi?

KYRSTEN SINEMA: Usually, the State of the Union address is the president’s opportunity, regardless of political party, to set out a vision for the future, for the next year.

So I think the president addressed a variety of topics. I think all of us would agree that maybe we wanted more of one thing or less of another. But it’s the president’s prerogative to lay out a vision for what he or she wants in the next year. The president certainly did that this week.

And while we may not agree with everything he said, I think there was enough agreement that Republicans and Democrats in Congress can find some common ground and move forward on a variety of proposals.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Congressman Messer, on that point about finding common ground, I know you two Republicans were elected in districts that have been pretty significantly conservative in the past, the Democrats, perhaps the districts a little bit more mixed, certainly in the case of Congresswoman Sinema.

But when you come to Congress, do you think of yourself as representing those folks who voted for you or all the folks in your district?

LUKE MESSER: Well, listen, yes, you make a good point. You represent everybody.

When you take the oath of office, it’s a vow to protect and defend the Constitution. It doesn’t say anything about party. And I think the key to common ground here is to remember why we’re here. I’m not for balanced budgets because it’s our math homework or I just want to make sure we do our arithmetic. I’m for balanced budgets and a growing economy because it impacts real people and their very real lives.

Over the last four years, far too many parents have had to come home and tell their family that they have lost their job. Far too many young people have had to come home and tell their parents they can’t find a job and far too many seniors have had to worry about whether they will have the Social — the protections that come with Social Security and Medicare and a healthy program there.

And I think if we stay focused on those real problems, we can find common ground. One of the great things about being a freshman is we have not been here before. People can talk about you don’t have experience, but we have not been a part of those problems. I think we all have an opportunity to be part of the solution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative Castro, what about those points that he just made, and this notion of whether you all are representing all of the constituents in your district or the folks who voted for you?

JOAQUIN CASTRO: Well, there’s no question that, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, once you’re elected, you’re elected to represent everyone.

But I think that what we have got to get past as freshmen and in the next few years as a Congress is this repeated use of hostage politics that has been very disruptive, not only to this Congress by crowding out other issues, but most fundamentally and importantly disruptive to our economy.

If we can get past the hostage politics, as the president said, the manufactured crises, I believe that the economy is on its way back and we will see brighter days ahead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean, Congressman Castro, by hostage politics?

JOAQUIN CASTRO: Well, you see the Republican Party, every time the debt ceiling comes up, trying to leverage that, making sure that the president can’t pass anything else, that we don’t get past that debate unless they get their way.

I think the American people want us to get past that. Obviously, the debt is very important, but you can’t have the same fight that’s very disruptive every six months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Collins, how do you see that?

DOUG COLLINS: Well, I think what we have got to do is, look, of course, we represent everyone in our districts and everyone in our state, but more importantly everyone in our country.

And I think what we have got to understand is that we do fight for the principles. We fight for the principles that we ran on. We fight for the principles that we believe in, in this country from an economic standpoint that make us great. I think what we have got to understand here is many times the — these issues that divide us also can bring us together, but it’s not going to be one from simply bringing up the same old thing.

And just simply to respond to the point of Republicans and always coming up, it’s also been a theme of the Democratic Party as well is to always go back to taxing certain classes of people. And that was another thing that was expressed the other night in very much of a class politics on who are we going to tax and who should be paying more or a balanced approach is simply to get it to one or the other.

And a reminder, this president signed the upcoming legislation on sequester and the debt that we’re dealing with. These are things that are going to be real issues that I think we can have conversations about it, but we never forget how these actually came about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congresswoman Sinema, just listening to the four of you and to your other colleagues, new members of Congress, do you think the two parties are going to be able to work together more?

KYRSTEN SINEMA: I absolutely do.

In fact, just earlier today, I was really proud to be part of a bipartisan freshman group. We had a handful of Republicans and Democrats together from the freshman group. We put out a letter that we delivered to the White House, to Speaker Boehner and to Leader Pelosi where we specifically said, we’re tired of the politics that just kick the can down the road. We’re ready for a big grand compromise. We’re ready to work together.

And we believe that our constituents from every district in this country sent us here to get things done and solve problems. I’m proud to be part of that bipartisan group. And, as I understand, it’s somewhat of a novel idea to have a freshman group do something so bold so early. And I’m very excited about the prospects of coming together and finding solutions without partisan ideology and without the bickering that people are so tired of hearing from — from Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Messer, do you think that’s possible? I mean, we’re watching right now the Senate very divided along partisan lines over the nomination of former Senator Hagel to be the defense secretary.

Do you feel, as a freshman, that the two parties will be able to work together and break through some of the logjams?

LUKE MESSER: Well, I do think there’s an opportunity to do that. I signed the same letter that was just referenced there, because I do believe it’s important that we work together.

This is a unique moment in American history because over the course of the last two election cycles, about 150 members of Congress have come into this body. So it’s not just this freshman class of 80-plus. It’s last year’s class, too, a whole group of people who have only been here a few years.

I think, if we stay focused on what really matters, which is, again, the fact that we have to have a growing economy, so that it creates jobs for the very real people who are challenged in their own life now because they don’t have a job, we can get there. There are going to be matters of disagreement.

I heard some earlier discussion about where we are on in the need for further tax increases. I believe we had those tax increases in the midnight tax increases that happened just a few weeks ago. But we can work through these problems if we stay focused on what matters as real people, and not talking points and arithmetic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I just want to finally ask all four of you how comfortable you would be — Congressman Castro, I will start with you, very quickly — voting against your own — the majority in your own party. Do you feel comfortable taking a stand on your own, Congressman Castro?


I think, given the right issue, I think both Leader Pelosi and Whip Hoyer understand that, at base, you have got to represent your own district, sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Congressman — Congresswoman Sinema, what about you? KYRSTEN SINEMA: Well, you know, my record, although I have only been here for a few weeks, already shows that that’s exactly the kind of person I am, and that’s how I was when I served in the state legislature.

I have already crossed party lines to vote in a bipartisan way on several occasions in the few weeks I have been here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Collins, what about you? Do you feel comfortable voting in another direction from where the majority of the Republican Party is going?

DOUG COLLINS: Well, I do feel comfortable.

And I made a promise on the campaign trail that said that when I believed that leadership was right, I would vote with them, and when I believed that we needed maybe another direction, I would not. And that was present in my vote just recently. Although I felt leadership was going in a direction that they felt right, for my district and my personal — as Congressman Castro said, I voted against the no budget, no pay.

And it was something that I think, for my district, we have to look first at our districts sometimes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Congressman Messer, same thing. Would you be comfortable voting against the Republican majority?

LUKE MESSER: Absolutely. You put your country first.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we hear you, all four, and we thank you very much for joining us.

Congressman Messer, Congressman Collins, Congresswoman Sinema, Congressman Castro, thank you all.



LUKE MESSER: Thank you.