Special: The historic 116th Congress

Jan. 04, 2019 AT 9:32 p.m. EST

It’s the first week of 2019 and the 116 th Congress was sworn in, with Nancy Pelosi reclaiming the gavel. Panelists discuss the historic firsts in the new Congress.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Podcast. It’s the first week of 2019 and the 116 th Congress was sworn in, with Nancy Pelosi taking the helm of the House of Representatives and the Democrats now in the majority. It’s a historic Congress for many reasons.

And joining me to discuss it all, Nancy Cordes, chief congressional correspondent for CBS News; Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent and anchor of Andrea Mitchell Reports ; Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post ; and Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times .

This new congressional class is one of firsts: the first two Native American women, the first Muslim women, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, the first African-American women from several states, and the first female senators from several states. There are 127 women now in Congress, a new high, and there are other significant signs of diversity: the highest number of African-Americans in the House, 53, with 56 in Congress overall; there are 42 Latino members, a new record; and there are 10 LGTBQ members, the most ever. Several members of this Congress have also served in Iraq and Afghanistan. How will the variety of backgrounds and experience change legislation coming from Capitol Hill and the whole scene?

Andrea, we were just talking about the images from that House floor vote for speaker. What stood out to you about this new Congress?

ANDREA MITCHELL: Well, the gender issue. I mean, the women. The fact that Nancy Pelosi was up there, and again, as she had done in 2007 when she took the gavel, she invited the children – now her grandchildren, her nine grandchildren, are a good deal older and there are more of them. But the fact that there were so many kids, it was – it’s always family day on the first day of the House. I used to cover the House and love it. But this was so, so cool. And, Dan, your newspaper pointed out that it took till, you know, 2011 for there to be a ladies restroom off the floor of the House, and for the first time there was a line for the restroom. (Laughter.) So that was another thing. It just was very different – the color, the ethnicity, the dress, very exciting. Very emotional for anyone who loves politics and loves Congress.

MR. COSTA: You’ve been keeping an eye on this new class in the House. What do you make of it, Dan?

DAN BALZ: I think it’s a remarkable group. I mean, one, just by the sheer size; it’s obviously the biggest new class of Democrats since the Watergate babies after the 1974 election. But as we’ve said a hundred times, the diversity of this group and the diversity of all types. There’s obviously ethnic diversity, racial diversity, but there’s also diversity in experience. I mean, there are people who have no experience in government who are already forces and there are people who have real experience in government who have come in with – you know, with an idea of how they want to try to fit in. And so they have a collective sense that they can do something simply because of kind of the sheer numbers that they have, that they may have some power to do some things. I think what they’re wrestling with collectively as a group is how do we do that, what do we actually do, where do we try to make our emphasis as a – as a group. And in talking to a number of them over the last few days, they’re not quite there on that yet, but they know that they are – they have the potential to be a truly historic class beyond just the numbers.

MR. COSTA: And we talk so much, Dan, about the outsiders in this class, but Haley Stevens from Michigan, what do you make of her?

MR. BALZ: Well, I got to know her before the – before the swearing-in and spent some time with her yesterday, on Thursday. She was a person who in the 2008 campaign prepared the briefing book for Hillary Clinton. And if you can imagine a more daunting task, I mean, Hillary Clinton actually read her briefing book. She got her start doing that. She then went into the Obama administration. She described for me – she said, you know, we’re in a chaotic moment here with the government shutdown, but she said I remember 10 years ago, I was at the Treasury Department and we were facing an economic crisis and we were facing GM and Chrysler about to go under, and we had to figure out how they were going to get paid to avoid liquidation. So she has looked at government up close, worked at it in a deep way. She wants to be – as she said, we want to be the doers. She said the class of ’74, they were the reformers; we’re going to be the doers.

MR. COSTA: Nancy, you spent part of Friday covering the new member Rashida Tlaib, the first, I believe, Palestinian-American woman to serve in Congress. She said the expletive about President Trump in remarks following the swearing-in on Thursday. What does that story tell us about this new class?

NANCY CORDES: Well, you know, she said on Twitter even after the uproar I’m unapologetically me. Basically, I’m – you know, I’m not going to say I’m sorry and I’m not going to change. And, you know, she is not the only new member coming in with an attitude that, you know, I’m authentic, that’s why I was elected, and I – and, you know, and I may have some rough edges, but deal with it.

And the interesting thing – you know, you talked about harnessing, you know, that talent. The interesting challenge for Democrats is that if they’re going to get anything done, if they’re going to achieve any of their priorities over the next couple of years when they don’t control the Senate and they don’t control the White House, they are going to need to win in the court of public opinion. They’re basically going to have to pass bills in the House and then marshal the public to their side to pressure the Senate to take up this legislation, already a very – a tall order. What’s the best way to do that? By having great communicators who are great on social media, and they have some very, very talented young communicators who, you know, are unpredictable. (Laughter.) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told 60 Minutes you want to call me a radical, fine, I’m radical, you know, which is, you know, not a label that a lot of politicians are usually very comfortable with. So, you know, they are going to provide a challenge for Democratic leadership, but if they can harness that talent, you know, and that youth, it could work very well to their advantage.

CARL HULSE: The Instagram class. That’s what this class is.

MR. COSTA: Is that your new moniker for them, Carl?

MR. HULSE: I just made it up. Just made it up. (Laughter.)

MS. CORDES: It’s good. You know –

MR. COSTA: We’ll see when that lands in the Times . Then I’ll know it’s a real thing. (Laughter.)

Carl, what do you make, though, not only of the new members, but the new stars of this new Congress? The nominating speeches for the speakership, you had Hakeem Jeffries from New York; and then on the Republican side Liz Cheney of Wyoming, daughter of Dick Cheney, the former vice president, nominating Kevin McCarthy.

MR. HULSE: Who is going to be – she’s showing, you know, that they’re going to remain conservative; here’s Dick Cheney’s daughter in there. I think Hakeem Jeffries did a(n) outstanding job according to his colleagues. They were all very impressed by him and thought that that was really a great introduction for him to the public. I mean, he’s obviously – they’re casting about in the House, the Democrats, for some, you know, new blood, younger people, and he obviously made his mark.

I think the interesting thing to me about the Democrats here is in some ways they’ve already won because they have this new class that more reflects society. You know, the House, politics is slow. The transition is slow. And the Democrats kind of caught up this time. These are people who, you know, represent all sorts of Americans.

And to your point about policy, I don’t think it has to affect policy because these are people in all sorts of walks of life. They’re going to be looking at things like, hey, I live in the real world; here’s how we need this policy to be. I think there can be a beneficial effect.

For the Republicans, it’s sort of a problem. I think they lost 10 women. So they had –

MS. CORDES: They had half – they have half the women that they had before, and they didn’t have that many.

MR. COSTA: And aren’t the new Republicans more Trumpy, to use a word?

MR. HULSE: Right, but the – but the – when you look out there now, you look over at the Democratic side, which we all did side by side, and you go, wow, look at that complexion of that group. And then the Republicans are more male, more white I presume –

MR. COSTA: And conservative.

MR. HULSE: And more conservative.

MR. BALZ: Older.

MR. HULSE: Yeah, older.

MS. MITCHELL: And the other thing, Dan’s absolutely right about the generational issue. One thing that just stood out to me today was Cortez – Ocasio-Cortez was being zapped by the Republicans for – they found a video of her doing a riff to Breakfast Club , and it’s quite charming, and it’s really very funny. She was in college. She had a Boston, you know, University sweatshirt on. And they made a big deal out of it, that this is terrible; she was on a roof and she’s dancing. And it’s a great takeoff on a very popular movie, and the fact is that they’re tone deaf in taking her on about that. And she went right on Twitter and did another dance in the halls of Congress.

MR. HULSE: Yeah, they backed off pretty quickly.

MS. MITCHELL: And they backed off quickly.

MS. CORDES: We should all be so lucky to have a video like that leaked about us, look what a great dancer I was in college.

MR. HULSE: Was that Don’t You Forget About Me from that movie? I don’t think anyone’s going to forget about her.

MR. COSTA: And how effective. So she has – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now has, I believe, more Twitter followers than Speaker Pelosi. What’s the mark of effectiveness for her? Is it going to be actually muscling through a Green New Deal through the House, or is it just building a national profile, Dan?

MR. BALZ: Well, I think it is – I think it is leveraging a national profile to keep pushing for as ambitious a progressive agenda as she can get. I was – when I was up in the House on Thursday, her office is right next to Congresswoman Stevens, and so there was a big crowd outside and she came out at one point to do a little scrum with reporters, and somebody asked her about the rules package. There had been issues in the rules package that the Democrats were presenting that the progressives didn’t like a return to pay as you go.


MR. BALZ: And she was asked about that, and basically what she said was two things. One is I think the people who did this – who put this together did a very good job; there’s a lot in here. I mean, it was a – it was a – it was – you know, it was a careful answer. But she also said, but on this particular issue I don’t think it behooves Democrats to have this if they are also pushing for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, a big infrastructure plan. And she was able to kind of bifurcate with her answer in a way that suggested to me she’s not just going to – you know, just kind of throw stuff up at the wall; she’s going to try to keep the pressure on to push, to push, to push a progressive agenda.

MR. HULSE: I don’t remember a House freshman getting this attention ever. Can you think of anything comparable? I just – it’s extremely unusual. I mean, you know, incoming members of the House do not usually jump to the top of the TV demand.

MS. MITCHELL: And it also, when you think about the way the Senate used to work, you know, when Hillary Clinton came to the Senate and I was covering her, she waited. She did not give a speech.

MS. CORDES: You put your head down.

MS. MITCHELL: She didn’t do any interviews. She let Barbara Mikulski take the lead on everything, who was the senior senator then among the women – of the Women’s Caucus. And this is more like what Elizabeth Warren did when Warren came to the Senate and grabbed the attention and was very, you know, strident among her colleagues, in fact, to the point where Harry Reid at one point called Susan Collins, I was told, and apologized for the way that Warren had behaved in an interview on ABC, a group interview of all the women.

MR. COSTA: Final thoughts, Nancy?

MS. CORDES: Well, you know, I think it’s interesting that Ocasio-Cortez seems to have become an object of fascination almost more so to Republicans than to Democrats. You know, they’re really watching –

MR. COSTA: They probably see her as a future presidential threat.

MS. CORDES: You know, they must or, you know, there’s something about her that confounds them. When, you know – when all 435 members of the House were voting for speaker, Republicans were mostly silent as 200 Democrats all voted for Nancy Pelosi. But when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – who had said she was going to vote for Nancy Pelosi, so it was not a surprise – voted for her, you know, they booed. And some people said, oh, they were booing in jest. You know, what was it about this freshman, 29 years old, voting for the speaker that – you know, that led them to respond that way? So it’s going to be – it’s going to be interesting to see how she riles up both parties.

MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Podcast. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on the Washington Week website.

I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and see you next time.


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