Shutdown Prompts Centrist Freshman Democrats to Flex Their Muscles


As the most diverse freshman class in history settles into the House of Representatives, newcomers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan have been racking up social media followers and soaking up the spotlight, liberal firebrands largely elected to safe Democratic seats.

But overlooked in the hallway protests and often glowing news media coverage, a larger group of more centrist Democrats has arrived with a different agenda. And now, they are quietly asserting their influence as the partial government shutdown, which has left them scrambling to explain why 800,000 workers are still without pay, enters its fifth week.

The centrists, elected to seats held last year by Republicans, delivered Democrats their House majority, and their re-elections will be critical to keeping the party in power. They include a sizable subset with backgrounds in military, intelligence and national security, and won by promising to work across the aisle and to end dysfunction in Washington. Now they are caught in the most dysfunctional situation of all — a record-breaking shutdown — and they are under pressure from constituents to do something about it.

This past week, a group of freshmen in Trump-leaning districts convened a private strategy session to discuss how they could press Speaker Nancy Pelosi to reclaim the issue of border security for Democrats and to open the door to negotiations with President Trump. Some also aired their frustrations with Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the chairman of the Democratic caucus, who hosted a small dinner for freshmen from battleground districts.

“We have very real credibility on the border security issue,” said Representative Jason Crow, Democrat of Colorado and a former Army ranger. “I did two combat deployments to Afghanistan. Both of those were on the Afghan-Pakistan border interdicting drug and gun smuggling and insurgents coming across from Pakistan and the tribal regions. So I like to think I know a thing or two about border security, and you don’t do it by building walls.”

Ms. Pelosi appears ready to listen. When Congress returns to Washington in the coming week, she is expected to bring up legislationthat will include an additional $1 billion for border security measures, including 75 additional immigration judges and infrastructure improvements at ports of entry — though no money for Mr. Trump’s cherished border wall.

She is also weighing whether to propose a Democratic homeland security bill that could lay the foundation for talks with Mr. Trump — a step that would be a significant shift in strategy for the new majority, which has instead spent the past several weeks emphasizing the shutdown’s emotional and financial toll on unpaid workers.

“As someone who worked on preserving the homeland her entire life, I’m ready to talk about homeland security,” said Representative Elissa Slotkin, Democrat of Michigan, a former Pentagon official who also served in the C.I.A., and who organized the strategy session. “I don’t think we need a wall from sea to shining sea. But am I willing to talk about more fencing and more drones and technology and radar and border agents? Absolutely.”

Of the roughly 60 new Democrats in Congress, two-thirds, including a tight-knit group of 10 who are either veterans or have national security experience, flipped Republican seats. They represent a very different face of the party: pragmatic moderates who believe they were elected not just to resist the president but also to cooperate with him where they can.

“Every single one of them ran on a platform of going out to Washington, shaking things up and getting things done,” said Representative Cheri Bustos of Illinois, a member of Democratic leadership who focuses on electing Democrats in Trump districts. “From the day they were sworn in, the government has been shut down, and they don’t like it and the people they represent don’t like it.”

Several of the freshman Democratic centrists, all members of a bipartisan group called the Problem Solvers Caucus, met with Mr. Trump at the White House this past week. Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, a former C.I.A. operative who handled and recruited spies in Europe, said she told Mr. Trump that people in her district, including prison officials and Transportation Security Administration officers, are suffering. She said Mr. Trump did a surprising amount of listening.

“I can’t speak for how he interpreted what we said, or how he listened to that information,” she said, “but it was a calm meeting. Most people spoke multiple times, and so I found that to be a positive thing.”

But while Democratic leaders understand the eagerness to quickly end the shutdown — a sentiment shared by Democrats across the philosophical spectrum — they are also urging caution, and sticking to their insistence that they will not negotiate with Mr. Trump on border security until the government is fully open.

“It’s fair to say that the freshman members of Congress, particularly the veterans and national security professionals, were sent to Washington to solve problems, and they would like to resolve the issue of border security in a bipartisan way,” Mr. Jeffries said. “That is the position of the House Democratic caucus as well, but it’s just a question of timing and the Republican willingness to stop acting like wholly owned subsidiaries of the Trump administration and engage in a meaningful conversation.”

After just three weeks in Washington, many of the centrists say the partisan split in the Capitol is even worse than they had imagined, and some have been quietly reaching out to freshman Republicans to see if they can find a way to bridge the divide and end the shutdown.

“When I think about being deployed on an aircraft carrier and we are simultaneously launching strikes against terrorist targets in Iraq and Afghanistan and I’m supervising the operation at the nuclear reactors, I don’t turn to one of the operators next to me and say, ‘Are you a Democrat or a Republican?’” said Representative Elaine Luria, Democrat of Virginia, who spent 20 years as a surface warfare officer and nuclear engineer in the Navy. “We’re all very frustrated by the partisanship.”

Ms. Slotkin, who was an acting assistant secretary of defense under former President Barack Obama, described what she called a lack of evidence-based planning to secure the border.

“If I was back at the Defense Department, we would look at an objective needs assessment for securing the border and we would build a budget to fund that security, and we would be negotiating on it,” she said.

But she said that when she asked senior House members if such a document existed, she was told that the White House had its needs assessment and Democrats had theirs — and that neither was “truly objective.”

In talking points issued to Democrats, Ms. Pelosi’s office ticked off a list of items that the party favors as part of a plan for “strong, smart, effective border security,” including scanning technology at ports of entry to screen for drugs and weapons, drones and radar to spot migrants crossing illegally, filling more than 3,000 vacancies for customs officers and building up infrastructure at official border crossings.

The “service candidates,” as the veterans and national security professionals call themselves, see themselves taking a leading role in articulating that vision.

In addition to discussing the financial toll of the shutdown, Representative Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, a former federal prosecutor and Navy pilot, said Democrats needed to start underlining the “safety aspect” as well: “While we are arguing over border security, we’re not paying our Customs and Border Patrol agents, so we’re creating less security right now.”

But the emphasis on border security may not sit well with their more progressive colleagues, who are more apt to talk about abolishing the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency than stopping the flow of drugs at the southern border with Mexico.

“I don’t think we need to try to out-border security the Republicans at this point with this president,” said Corbin Trent, the communications director for Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. “It makes more sense to focus on ways of creating an immigration system to bring people into this country to help build our economy and our society, rather than to help keep them out.”

But Ms. Slotkin said it was time for the voices of those who flipped districts to be heard.

“By the numbers, we should and do have a strong voice in the caucus,” she said, adding, “I think Alexandria has done a great job of attracting new young people into the political process and getting people engaged. I think that’s a good thing. Do I think she always represents every freshman? No.”

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