House Freshmen Balance National Crises, Issues Back Home - NBC Chicago
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House Freshmen Balance National Crises, Issues Back Home

But the balance can be challenging, with wrenching national stories never far from view

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    Members of Congress smile after voting during the 116th Congress and swearing-in ceremony on the floor of the House of Representatives at the Capitol on Jan. 3, 2019, in Washington.

    Iowa Rep. Abby Finkenauer spent her time back home meeting with small-business owners and veterans, marching in a parade and delivering gifts to fire stations. In their upstate New York districts, Rep. Antonio Delgado visited farms, including one that's part of a pilot program for hiring veterans, and Rep. Andy Brindisi kicked off a summer lunch program for kids.

    As the class of freshmen House lawmakers returned to their states for the Independence Day break, six months into their first terms, many were determined to push beyond President Donald Trump's latest pronouncements from the White House — over the border crisis or the impeachment calls against him — to focus on local issues they say matter in their districts.

    But the balance can be challenging, with wrenching national stories never far from view. For these new lawmakers, their ability to master attention to both could prove crucial as they gear up for what may be their toughest campaign yet, winning a second term in Congress.

    "The folks I'm talking to just want a Washington that is working together to move things forward," Finkenauer said by telephone in between stops in her sprawling district where many farmers are hard hit by Trump's tariff war with China.

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    She is using her position as head of the House Small Business subcommittee on Rural Development, Agriculture, Trade and Entrepreneurship to shore up federal money for programs to help her constituents. It's a role she said she would play regardless who was president. "Having a trade war over Twitter doesn't work when people are struggling," Finkenauer said.

    Even as the first-term lawmakers fill their days closer to home, they're never removed from the throughlines that dominate Washington. In recent days, protests over the dismal conditions of migrants being held at U.S.-Mexico border facilities erupted in several congressional districts as part of a campaign organized by MoveOn and other activist groups.

    As Delgado visiting veterans' health care facilities and family farms, protesters outraged over the border crisis gathered at his district office. Congress approved a $4.5 billion package last week that many liberal lawmakers said fell short of ensuring protections and standards of care for the migrants.

    "I applaud the impassioned civic engagement, including those exercising their right to protest outside our Kingston office, in response to what's happening to migrant families within our own borders," Delgado said on Twitter. He welcomed as an "important first step" the upcoming congressional hearing to investigation a Customs and Border Patrol officers' Facebook page that included derogatory comments about migrants.

    "Congress must increase oversight & accountability of CBP in order to end this inhumane treatment of migrants & make sure our fellow human beings are never forced to endure such horrible conditions," he wrote.

    Democrats seized the House in 2018 after flipping 40 Republican-held seats, many of them in districts that Trump won in 2016 and will be contested again when the freshmen seek re-election in 2020. Trump will be on the ballot, and Republicans are trying to recruit strong challengers .

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    Private polling conducted for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee showed voters remain open to Democrats, but view them as too focused on impeachment . Instead, voters want to see lawmakers work across political lines to solve problems. Health care, a key issue that many Democrats focused on during the 2018 campaigns, remains a top priority.

    But those goals often collide with the party's left flank, which is pushing Congress to stand up to the White House by starting impeachment proceedings and improving the situation at the border. They argue that voters want lawmakers to be bold and fight for Democratic values.

    It's a disconnection that Republicans are eager to exploit as they try to portray the House Democrats as aligned with their liberal colleagues, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other newcomers.

    "When they're back home the socialist Democrats want to talk about anything except their real agenda of open borders, banning private health insurance and baselessly impeaching the president," said Bob Salera, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Folks back home won't be fooled."

    Brindisi said in an interview that he was driving to as many counties in upstate New York as possible to meet constituents. He had stopped at Boys and Girls Club to launch a summer lunch program and visited first responders in support of the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. He and his wife also delivered books from the Library of Congress to libraries as part of an initiative he calls Brindisi Bookworms.

    In his district, constituents worry about rising prescription drug costs, the opioid crisis, and damage from the flooding Lake Ontario, but aren't as vocal about issues major national issues such as immigration or impeachment, Brindisi said.

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    "It's really issues people wake up every morning worrying about," Brindisi said. "My constituents are concerned about people working together in Washington."