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The Shutdown Is Testing Democrats' Promise To Work Across The Aisle


Democrats won control of the House of Representatives in November, in part, by promising to work across the aisle and get things done. Well, the ongoing government shutdown is testing that promise. The sharply partisan battle over President Trump's demand for a border wall with Mexico is dominating their first days in office. Now the class of 67 freshmen Democrats have to decide. Will they use their newfound power to stand with Speaker Nancy Pelosi or to cut deals with Republicans? NPR's Kelsey Snell has more.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: The first month of any new Congress is supposed to be about setting an agenda for the next two years, but Democrats can't do that. Instead, they're launching their brand-new majority by trying to do the basic task of opening federal offices.

ELISSA SLOTKIN: A lot of us are very much can-do people. We're very concrete people. We're very practical people. So all I want to do is solve it.

SNELL: That's Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin. She's a former CIA analyst who beat a sitting Republican to represent the area east of Lansing, Mich. She ran on setting aside vitriol to get things done.


SLOTKIN: Where I've worked, in tough situations, you don't ask if someone's a Democrat or a Republican. You work with them to get problems solved.

SNELL: That kind of message dominated political ads in November, but actually following through hasn't been so easy in these first few weeks.

SLOTKIN: So it's frustrating. I think that I would describe it as frustrating.

SNELL: For Slotkin and other freshmen, their very first weekend home as members of Congress was the exact same weekend that federal workers started missing paychecks. And they say that's all they heard when they went out to talk to constituents. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who won a Republican-held seat in Miami, says it was a really eye-opening experience. And she's well aware that this group of freshmen needs to figure out how to use the power they've just been given.

DEBBIE MUCARSEL-POWELL: Don't doubt for a second that we don't understand that we also have a lot of leverage because we're a new class. We're ready to take action. We are - we need to make this government work for all of us.

SNELL: They're trying a whole smorgasbord of ways to get that leverage moving. The freshmen have their own strategy sessions, and they want to take advantage of being political celebrities who attract a lot of media attention. That much was on display when a group led, in part, by California Democrat Katie Hill called their own press conference to march to the Senate to demand a meeting with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.


KATIE HILL: We're ready to negotiate. We're ready to make a deal, but we have to get people paid.

SNELL: McConnell wasn't there, and there's still no resolution in sight. Hill, one of the co-chairs of the freshman class, says they've remained unified behind Pelosi so far because her demand has been consistent. She says she'll negotiate on the details once the government is reopened.

HILL: We are very much aligned with the strategy of, we have to hold strong. We have to say that you cannot use the American people as a bargaining chip.

SNELL: But that means some members have to find different ways to transcend partisanship in the middle of a massive partisan battle. Freshman Minnesota Democrat Dean Phillips was one of several House members from both parties who went to the White House this week to ask Trump to do exactly what Pelosi's asking - reopen the government now. He says he wants to have bipartisan talks and get things moving, but he agrees that the government can't stay closed while they talk.

DEAN PHILLIPS: It is a unified perspective, you know? The fact is that we have our border security officers and TSA agents, air traffic controllers - the people who actually are charged with protecting us aren't getting paid right now.

SNELL: But many freshmen admit that unity might not last forever. Things might change when they start talking about controversial details of what defines border security. Moderate members from areas once held by Republicans, like Max Rose in New York, don't support the same policies as the outspoken progressives who were also just elected in solidly blue districts. Rose says the unity over the first step of opening the government is simple.

MAX ROSE: That shouldn't be news, right (laughter)? I just want to see people get paid.

SNELL: Navigating bigger policies will come later. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.