A new, historic Congress came into Washington at the start of 2019 ready to get to work. While they eventually did, they also arrived in a Washington that was largely shuttered by a government shutdown.
“It has been intense,” said U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Democrat who represents a district centered in Delaware County.
Last year she helped her party usher through a historic bill to expand background checks for gun purchases, along with another to block the Trump administration’s attempts to get people to buy cheap, catastrophic health insurance plans and not more robust everyday coverage. House Democrats even passed sweeping election reforms, including expanding early voting and reforming how districts are drawn. Still, those bills, along with more than 300 that cleared the House, have sat untouched in the Senate.
“Mitch McConnell has said repeatedly that he’s not going to do anything unless the president blesses it. The President appears to be holding up a lot of legislation and other activity that the country needs to move forward,” Scanlon said, sharing her frustration.
Republicans beg to differ. As last year wound down, Bucks County Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick said the reason bipartisan proposals on everything from infrastructure to opioids remained stalled was because Democrats decided to impeach rather than forge compromises.
“Look what they’re focusing on right now,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s taken up a lot of time.”
Now that Fitzpatrick and others are back in Washington, he is hoping lawmakers can come together on some of his bipartisan bills focused on the opioid epidemic, cancer research and infrastructure. Fitzpatrick says party leaders should listen to the 48 members of the Problem Solvers Caucus in this new year and avoid being swayed by the extreme wings of both parties.
“We are a very cohesive unit. We believe in centrism. We believe in moderation. We believe in coming to the center and building consensus,” Fitzpatrick said.
While impeachment garnered the most headlines in 2019, the region’s Democrats say last year ended on a high note that they hope carries into this year. Other top priorities for Democrats include money for gun violence research and raising the age for buying tobacco to 21. The House also came together to approve the new North American trade agreement — the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. New Jersey U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski says this shows his party can keep legislation moving and move ahead on impeachment — despite what Republicans say.
“We were showing that we can keep our promise to legislate to improve people’s lives, while also keeping our promise to hold the president accountable when he crosses constitutional lines,” Malinowski said.
Malinowski, however, agrees with Fitzpatrick when it comes to transportation.
“It’s a disgrace how we’ve under-invested in infrastructure in this country over the last 20 or 30 years. I felt that was one issue on which we agreed with the president. I hope there’s still a chance to work together with him,” Malinowski said.
Still, trust between Democrats and President Trump is almost nonexistent these days. That’s why Malinowski says he’s also prepared for House Democrats to move infrastructure on their own if necessary.
“We will use the powers that we have here in the House to move something. The size of the bill will necessarily depend on the extent to which President Trump is interested in governing,” Malinowski said.
The Democrats from our region now running for a second term are also hoping they can deliver on lowering the costs of prescription drugs. Democratic U.S. Rep. Andrew Kim from South Jersey says he’s still holding out hope they can get signed a bill authorizing the government to negotiate better prices on medicines.
“People are looking for something tangible that is going to affect their lives and improve it. And this is something where there is bipartisan interest, including up to the president. I think we should be able to deliver this for the people,” Kim said.
U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat who represents a district in Chester County, says a part of the problem for her party in this new year is combatting the bully pulpit that President Trump maintains from his perch in the Oval Office. But in this election year, she’s planning to focus on telling voters what her party has passed and not spend her time responding to sensational headlines.
“I would definitely say that I’m trying hard to make sure that the people of my community and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the country know what’s happening here, because it’s a lot easier to talk about the partisan-ness than it is to talk about the things that are working,” Houlahan said.
As last year wrapped up, Congress faced another government shutdown, but four senior lawmakers crafted a spending deal in private. Lawmakers of all stripes ended up attaching their favored proposals to it — including paid family leave for federal workers. With the election expected to dominate 2020, it might not be until after voters cast their ballots in November that members of Congress get their bills over the finish line.