Republicans and Democrats in Congress are trying to become friends again — sort of

Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A new term in Congress is weeks away, which means a new class of freshmen — itching to get to work and eager to make a name for themselves — will soon be sworn in. But some of these incoming members also have another goal.

Nearly two years after Jan. 6, the new crop of freshman lawmakers are trying to bridge partisan divides in a deeply divided Congress. They try to work across the aisle and achieve dual goals. In general, Democrats and Republicans try to be friends—though they may not always want to show it.

Members of Congress, in the House in particular, have seen their bipartisan camaraderie decline dramatically in recent years. The Jan. 6 uprising made matters worse, but four years of Trump had already driven an ugly, MAGA-tinged wedge between the two parties. Legislators told The Daily Beast earlier this year it had become difficult to stop the once casual conversations they had with opposing members. The air in the Capitol was – and at times still is – thick with anger.

But the collegial relationships served a purpose beyond giving members room for small talk in committee rooms and Capitol elevators; they helped lower the temperature in a chamber heated by hyperpolarized districts across the nation. The House is not like the Senate’s so-called “cooling plate”. The house is spicy – the house is strange.

This term’s first-year members could be a fresh start. And they can help facilitate some of these divisions if they want to.

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Rep.-elect Jeff Jackson (D-NC), for example, told The Daily Beast that he was especially excited about the Capitol Christmas tree this year. The tall, intricately decorated red spruce was from his beloved home state. But too late for the ceremony, he joined the North Carolina delegation in a remaining empty seat along with Rep. Ted Budd (R-NC) Jackson said it was his “first opportunity to sit down with him and talk for a few moments.”

Budd just won a seat in the Senate against Democrat Cheri Beasley. He is a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. And he is at least the hardline Republican that Beasley tried to paint him as during the campaign.

And yet Jackson said there was a lightness in the moment. “There’s probably something to the fact that the first real conversation I had with this guy was literally during the lighting of the Capitol Christmas tree,” Jackson said.

“It probably makes it more difficult to walk the scorched earth against someone whose acquaintance you have made – or you know whose first conversation was held under these circumstances,” he continued.

Fresh out of their new member orientation, this freshman class has now had opportunities like this to begin meeting their opposite counterparts.

Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY) told The Daily Beast that he introduced himself to “a number of the Democratic members from New York,” and he also hopes to find time to meet with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). . He said he wants to build relationships with members he can work with, even if they “fundamentally disagree.”

“At some point in the new Congress, I would certainly be interested in having a delegation meeting in New York … to find common ground and the importance of dealing with some issues that are meaningful to New York,” Lawler said.

There are no more frenemies in Congress. Enemies only.

Rep. Nikki Budzinski (D-IL) told The Daily Beast that she has been meeting with Republicans from her neighboring districts, including Reps. Mary Miller (R-IL) and Mike Bost (R-IL). She also met with newly elected representative Zach Nunn, an up-and-coming Republican from Iowa.

“We talked a lot about agriculture… During that conversation, he invited me to his state fair. I invited him to my state fair. I think that’s where it really starts, it’s relationships,” Budzinski said.

Rep.-elect Greg Casar (D-TX) told The Daily Beast that he got to know fellow Texas Rep. Nathaniel Moran (R). Casar said the two men “probably disagree on almost every major issue” but still took time to chat.

“We were nice and talked about each other’s families with each other in the hallways. Got to know each other a little. But I look forward to more opportunities for us to really get to know each other as people,” Casar said, later adding that he hopes to meet more colleagues in the gym or in the cafeteria.

Casar pointed to times during the orientation of new members, such as the office selection event, as moments when freshmen could come together if they even worked for opposing purposes. All in the same room, members pulled randomly numbered buttons from a box, which assigned each freshman their turn to go to the office buildings to choose a figurative home for the next two years.

When a member drew a low number, which meant they got to choose their office earlier, everyone rejoiced. When a member got a high number, others playfully consoled them. Some offices, such as those in the Longworth or Cannon House office buildings, are widely considered more desirable. They are more recently renovated, easier to commute and have better food. The other option, the Rayburn office building, is known to be a confusing maze.

It was the first time since the onset of COVID-19 that members conducted office elections in person, adding an opportunity for bonding that the last class did not have. It was real fun, according to Casar.

“People are cheering each other on, supporting each other,” he said.

To be sure, even the bipartisan events were not immune to bias.

“There was somebody yelling ‘Let’s go Brandon’ right up there at one point and kind of trying to screw it up,” Casar said of the office’s selection event. “But I think most people ignored it.”

As these first-year members get closer to their swearing-in, there’s a catch to their budding two-part bond: they might not want to show it off.

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There are political obligations – for better or for worse – to members from different parties who publicly join. What if a cheeky moment or photo with an opposing member is used in your re-election? What if an opposing member you showed camaraderie with becomes your base’s next ire? Will your constituents understand that it’s collegial, or might ad producers interpret it as something bigger?

Rep.-elect Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) told The Daily Beast that he suspects those bipartisan friendships never really faded in the wake of Jan. 6 or during the fraught Trump years. They just went into the shadows, he said.

“When the cameras aren’t on, right, there are a lot of relationships in Washington that still exist,” Moskowitz said. “But what’s happening is that because people are so divided at home and they’re so divided on social media, the members don’t want to be seen with each other.”

That reality for many members after 6 January was that they pretended to get along much better with members of the opposite party than they pretended to be enemies.

Jackson told The Daily Beast about another moment during House Nancy Pelosi’s speech announcing her resignation from leadership. The congressman-to-be said he physically ventured across the aisle to say hello to a Republican “whom I had never met in person, but whose campaign I followed on social media.”

“We ended up talking for several minutes. The conversation immediately turned to our hopes that we could find a way to work together. I don’t know to what extent that’s going to happen, but I know that we both meant that while we were talking. It was really refreshing,” he said.

When asked to name the Republican he spent a moment with, however, Jackson declined. He didn’t want to put that member in the awkward public position of hanging out with a Democrat. In private fidelity, he said, members have more flexibility to be human.

“I would like to preserve that as much as possible. I don’t want to make that situation even worse by outing them, I guess,” he added.

Moskowitz argued that the key to restoring some collegiality in Congress is to bring these matters to light.

“If we want Americans to be less divided at home, then we need to be less divided in Washington… That doesn’t mean we agree, but we have to lead by example,” Moskowitz said.

Budzinski said she knows not all members are ready to do something good, but considers it important to try. She believes voters would reward members who find connections across the aisle — not punish it.

Not to mention, with the House led by Republicans and the Senate led by Democrats, it will take some form of bipartisan cooperation for virtually anything to get done over the next two years.

“There’s going to be a lot of places where we’re going to disagree, I’m not going to hide that. But I still think we all care about our communities,” Budzinski said. “And so it’s an obligation to try to find the places where we can agree.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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