‘Baptized by fire and virus’: How an historic freshmen class in Congress has been tested by constant crisis

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“We had to switch up who was answering phones and for how many hours,” said Slotkin, a former CIA officer. It’s not just the volume of calls, she says, it’s having to deal with an unprecedented economic and public health crisis that’s taking such an emotional toll on her staff and constituents. “I never thought I would be training my congressional staff on how to manage conflict zone-level stress.”

Instead, members have gotten a crash course in crisis management, dealing with one monumental challenge after another: a record-long shutdown, a border crisis, the Mueller report, impeachment, mass shootings, near-war with Iran and now the biggest public health crisis in 100 years.

“If you had faced any one of these issues in a normal term of Congress I think that would have been considered a huge term,” said Rep. Mikie Sherrill, a New Jersey Democrat. “But here we are handling one after another after another.”

The early divisions between moderates and liberals that marked some of their first months in office have been dulled by the dire need for unity.

“The natural ideological differences you are going to find in a group this large tend to recede and fade into the background when the country is facing a crisis like this,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, a freshman Democrat from New Jersey.

The coronavirus has upended the job description of being in Congress. Instead of sitting through committee hearings and voting, members track down masks and gloves for nurses in their district. Instead of caucus meetings, they help constituents navigate their unemployment offices. They spend hours on the phone, often from home, with administration officials lobbying for supplies, for guidance, for more clarity on who is eligible to apply for a Small Business Administration loan. They write letters that may never get answered to the Treasury Secretary, to the President, to the Secretary of Labor.

For freshman members, this has been their normal.

“It is such a strange experience. Everything about this Congress has been different,” said freshman Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger. “We came in during a government shutdown. We went through impeachment, then we watched the trial and just when we thought we could talk about health care, roads, bridges and tunnels, then it was this.”

In this photo provided by Rep. Abigail Spanberger's Congressional Office, she is seen working from home.

In Spanberger’s suburban Richmond district, she is adjusting to the reality that a recent outbreak at a nursing home facility could not be accompanied by a visit to hug the families of the victims. Questions about stimulus checks can’t be explained at one of her in-person town halls, but rather must be discussed over webinars or by phone.

“It is just heartbreaking because typically if there was a tragedy, I could go visit a place, I could go listen to people, and now I cannot do that,” she said.

Minnesota’s Dean Phillips recalled returning home after the second stimulus vote in March, with a nagging feeling walking through a packed airport that the virus “just didn’t seem to be taken as seriously and as existentially as it needed to be.” A few days later, he was back at that same airport, taking the same flight back to Washington. And everything was different. “It was as if life had changed in ways that were unimaginable,” said Phillips, a freshman Democrat. “Empty airports, an empty plane and a reminder for all of us nothing is to be taken for granted.”

It was a grim sign of the unprecedented challenges he and rest of the 116th Congress are now facing.

“We will have been literally baptized by fire and virus in this extraordinary two-year period,” Phillips said. “And my hope is that the experience will make us better legislators, better cooperators and better representatives for both our constituents and the entire country.”

Rep. Dean Phillips works from home, in this photo provided by his congressional office.

Veteran lawmakers have made no secret that their freshmen colleagues have seen far more in the last year and a half than is typical.

Michigan Rep. Haley Stevens said she was on the same flight with Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Rep. Debbie Dingell, and the state’s longest-serving House Democrat, Rep. Dan Kildee, after the second stimulus vote. When they’d safely arrived in Detroit, Kildee turned to her and Tlaib and summarized what they had suspected for months.

“I just have to tell you,” he said, “you guys have had quite a first term of Congress.”

Freshmen front and center

The freshman class of the 116th Congress was always going to be historic for its size and diversity. But some of the new lawmakers were thrust into the spotlight far more quickly than they could have imagined.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, for instance, had to wrestle in August 2019 with the deadliest mass shooting targeting Latinos in history in her El Paso district. Grappling with the pandemic now is “eerily similar” to what her community faced in the aftermath of the shooting.

“The big difference, and what’s been so difficult, is I can’t go out and hug people, I can’t comfort people, I can’t be with people, which is antithetical to what you want to do, what you instinctively want to do,” Escobar said.

In this photo provided by Rep. Vernoica Escobar's Congressional Office, Escobar is seen working from home.

Rep. Jason Crow, a Democrat from Aurora, Colorado, was called into the speaker’s office in early January and asked if he would serve as an impeachment manager. The former Army Ranger hadn’t served on any of the relevant impeachment committees or sat through hours of closed-door testimony. He’d come to support impeachment much later than many of his colleagues, focusing his early days on Capitol Hill on combating gun violence.

“I hadn’t been lobbying for it,” he said. “A little over three years ago I couldn’t even imagine being in Congress. I wasn’t imagining being an impeachment manager and making the case to impeach a sitting US president in front of the Senate and millions of Americans watching. That was obviously not something I came to Congress to do.”

A week later, his name was a surprise addition to the roster of seven impeachment managers, along with fellow freshman Rep. Sylvia Garcia of Texas, putting them in front of the Senate — and millions of viewers — to argue for removing the President from office.

Impeachment delivered the freshmen class some of their earliest challenges.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib made waves on the first day of the new Congress with an expletive-filled declaration that Trump needed to be impeached. Liberals demanding impeachment clashed with moderate Democrats, who quietly wrestled for months with whether impeachment was warranted and battled questions about whether to back an inquiry when most would have preferred talking about anything else.

“I struggled with that decision up to right before the vote happened,” remembered Rep. Anthony Brindisi, a New York Democrat.

Remembering the moment he voted yes, freshman Rep. Harley Rouda, a California Democrat, said, “It was a host of emotions that flooded over, none of them joyful.”

‘It was such a moment’

At the end of last year, the 116th Congress appeared destined to be defined by its impeachment of the President for just the third time in US history.

Then the worst public health crisis in a century happened.

As stay-at-home orders began flooding in from governors across the country, Congress was suddenly debating legislation that would surpass $1 trillion in spending. Within days, the price tag had jumped to $2 trillion.

Rank-and-file members watched from afar, home in their districts as an agreement was struck in late March. Congressional leadership on both sides had signed off on the bill, and the House was preparing to pass it by voice vote so members did not have to travel back to Washington.

But like so much of the 116th Congress, things would wind up far more complicated.

Freshman Rep. Haley Stevens, a Democrat from Michigan, speaks as the House deliberates a $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package.

The objection to a voice vote from a single lawmaker, GOP Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, meant the House would need half of its members to overcome Massie’s objection and pass the bill. Suddenly, hundreds of them had less than 24 hours to race back to the Capitol to get the biggest stimulus package in US history passed.

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon jumped into her family’s SUV to make the solo drive from Pennsylvania. Rep. Madeleine Dean drove with her husband in their Audi instead of taking the Amtrak to Washington from her district near Philadelphia.

Rep. Joe Neguse took a redeye from Colorado, arriving in Baltimore at 3 o’clock in the morning. Escobar awoke for a 5 a.m. flight out of El Paso, arriving at the Capitol minutes before the House was set to pass the $2 trillion bill.

For the freshmen lawmakers, it was just one more episode in a wild 16 months that’s been anything but routine.

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon is seen working from home in this photo provided by her congressional office.

As the vote neared, lawmakers were directed to keep proper social distance on the House floor that’s designed for close interaction. Dozens of members were sent to sit into the visitor galleries above the chamber so they could be present when the voice vote occurred. After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke on the floor, she cleaned the microphone and lectern with a wipe. Scanlon broke House rules to snap a picture of the “surreal scene” in the chamber.

“I actually took a forbidden picture from the gallery,” Scanlon said. “I just figured it was such a moment.”

CNN’s Sunlen Serfaty contributed to this report.

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