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Freshman Representatives Start First Day In Congress

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Today, on snowy Capitol Hill...

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BLOCK: The 114th Congress began a new legislative session. The House and Senate both opened with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance and then members of the House voted for their new speaker.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Mr. Abraham, Boehner, Adams, Pelosi.

BLOCK: That went on for a long time.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Meanwhile, in the Senate...

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MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL: Mr. President...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Majority Leader.

MCCONNELL: Today is an important day for our country. Many senators took the oath this afternoon - 13 for the first time - and a new Republican majority accepted its new responsibility.

SIEGEL: Mitch McConnell accepted the responsibility of Senate majority leader - a longtime dream.

BLOCK: And, eventually, despite some conservative defections, the members of the House chose their leader.

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SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES JOHN BOEHNER: Friends, colleagues, countrymen.

BLOCK: John Boehner tearfully accepted his re-election as speaker of the house.

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BOEHNER: This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad. We rejoice that our new members and families are here. I want to welcome them. We're glad and humbled to begin anew as servants of the people's House.

SIEGEL: Meanwhile, in room 236 of the Cannon House Office Building, friends and family of Mimi Walters, that room's new occupant, celebrated her big day.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Mimi Walters.

REPRESENTATIVE MARIAN WALTERS: That's me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Boehner.

(APPLAUSE)

SIEGEL: Mimi Walters, of Laguna Niguel, California, is one of 52 freshmen House members of the 114th Congress. They were sworn into office today. She is one of two members we'll check in with over the coming months. She's a Republican, a former city and state legislator, now the representative of California's 45th Congressional District. I spoke with Representative Walters yesterday before she was sworn in.

WALTERS: Hello, hi, Mimi Walters.

SIEGEL: Robert Siegel, hi.

WALTERS: Robert, nice to meet you, hi.

SIEGEL: Nice to meet you.

She was still moving in. The pictures that hung in her state senate office in Sacramento still hadn't arrived, so the walls were bare.

Have you met your neighbors here in the Cannon House Office Building?

WALTERS: No, I actually just arrived for the first time and you're the first person I've met in my official office.

SIEGEL: I'm honored. I'm honored to be your first guest.

Mimi Walters is a 52-year-old former stockbroker with four kids - three in college, one already out. She is for the Keystone XL pipeline, for gun rights, pro-life and very much against the Affordable Care Act.

We hope to be talking to you throughout your term in this Congress and I'm just curious - as you set goals for yourself and you think about what would be a successful freshman term for yourself, what are the criteria you have in mind?

WALTERS: A successful term for me is to be part of the solution and to make sure that we put legislation on the president's desk to show the American people that we are wanting to move America forward.

SIEGEL: At least to get as far as the White House.

WALTERS: Exactly, exactly. To me, that's a success because at the end of the day the president's going to decide what he's going to decide, but at least I can show people in California that I was part of solutions.

SIEGEL: Is there anything that President Barack Obama could say to you in his State of the Union address that would make you think OK, maybe there's more here, you know, that we can get done than I thought. Is there some message you'd like to hear?

WALTERS: I would like the president to say to the world that he wants to work with the Republicans.

SIEGEL: What would be a test of that? What would be a concession that you saw that said that's not just rhetoric, that's...

WALTERS: Reforming Obamacare 'cause to me that is his biggest single issue. That is his legacy and I think he understands it's not really working. So if he said to us and to the American people I'm willing to make concessions then I think he's serious.

SIEGEL: One issue has been how do you define a full-time worker - an important question?

WALTERS: Absolutely, absolutely. We have to redefine the full-time worker because what's happening now is you have small businesses are being hurt. People are not having as many hours to work and they are being cut back on their working hours because of this issue.

SIEGEL: The issue being that the Affordable Care Act defines someone who works 30 hours a week...

WALTERS: Correct.

SIEGEL: As a full-time worker. That means - it is said at least - that employers are scaling people back...

WALTERS: Exactly.

SIEGEL: To try to give them fewer hours.

WALTERS: Exactly.

SIEGEL: And make them less costly - back to 40 hours a week for a full-time worker.

WALTERS: I believe so, yes.

SIEGEL: Possible - I mean, do you get the sense that that's one that you could get enough Democratic buy-in for that it could actually pass?

WALTERS: I believe so.

SIEGEL: Have you had any moments since you announced for Congress, any moments of any regret that you were either trading in Orange County winters for this place or moving 3,000 miles away or walking into a place that the public - about 8 percent of Americans - think is doing a good job?

WALTERS: I am just really excited to be here. I was an intern back in 1981 on Capitol Hill. I was an intern for former Congressman Bill Thomas, so I'm looking forward to finding out where I used to work, but it's just so awesome to be back. I am so grateful that the people elected me to serve. And it's sort of a dream come true.

SIEGEL: You've come back home.

WALTERS: I've come back home, yeah. Many, many years ago I was here.

SIEGEL: Well, Representative Walters, thanks for talking with us, and I hope we'll be talking with you throughout this term.

WALTERS: Thank you, I look forward to it.

SIEGEL: That's Republican Mimi Walters, of California. We'll also be checking in with freshman Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego. He is a Chicago-born son of Latino immigrants, raised by a single mother. He went to Harvard, enlisted in the Marine Corps, served in Iraq and followed his girlfriend, now his wife, to Phoenix. He became a state legislator, and last November, he won Arizona's seventh Congressional District.

REPRESENTATIVE RUBEN GALLEGO: You grow up being told that you can do whatever you want. You know, follow your American dream and I guess I was one of those foolish little kids that actually did believe it, and I'm here.

SIEGEL: A couple of weeks ago, our producer, Matt Ozug, met with you in the Longworth cafeteria - that's the cafeteria at the Longworth House Office Building.

GALLEGO: Yeah.

SIEGEL: You didn't have an office yet at...

GALLEGO: No.

SIEGEL: That time, so you met in the cafeteria. And you remarked on how, at age 35 - and a rather youthful looking 35 - you know, you weren't convincing a lot of people that you actually belonged in the Longworth House Office Building.

GALLEGO: (Laughter).

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GALLEGO: Well, so far, I mean, I've gotten, you know, I've been stopped a lot by security and rerouted to different areas. So like no, no, no, this is for congressman building staff. Go that way. As in, like, I'm supposed to - they think I'm staff. I've been asked twice, like, whose - who I'm interning for.

(Laughter) Yeah, it's (laughter) you know, it's a good problem to have and, you know, I just have to live with that good curse, I guess (laughter).

SIEGEL: That's a lot better than who's that old guy trying to get into the office, right?

GALLEGO: Exactly, yeah (laughter).

SIEGEL: You are a Democrat and the Democrats are very much in the minority in this house. Is there any sense you have at all of, you know, I wish we could - I wish I could be part of the process of actually accomplishing things and being positive during the next couple of years?

GALLEGO: Well, you don't know - I think, you know, I was in the minority in Arizona for all four years. And our caucus was so small we were called the pizza caucus 'cause you could feed our caucus with one extra large pizza.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

GALLEGO: You know, so trying to wake up every day and get yourself feeling relevant...

SIEGEL: But was the Latino caucus a slice of that?

GALLEGO: Yeah, the Latino caucus was the spicier slice of that, yes.

SIEGEL: Yeah, yeah.

GALLEGO: But, you know, when you're in the minority - and this is just from my experience in the Arizona State House - what you have to hope for is to find both relevance to your constituents. So trying to pass any bills that are, you know, bipartisan or at least non-offending to both sides too, but also stand up for the values of your constituents. I represent a very progressive district and they want me to be here fighting for their values every day.

SIEGEL: One thing the Republican majority in both houses intends to do is challenge the Affordable Care Act. If they can't repeal it altogether, repeal parts of it. Is the Affordable Care Act actually popular with your constituents?

GALLEGO: It is. Look, my district is about in the mid-60s in terms of Hispanic representation and the Latino community has been the biggest beneficiary to the Affordable Health Care Act. So we know that it's saving lives. We know it's giving people access to medical care that they normally wouldn't. And, you know, I certainly ran on protecting the ACA program and I'm proud to continue doing that.

SIEGEL: You know, flashback 60, almost 70, years ago and the Congress was full of men - almost entirely men who had served in the Second World War and then came back and served in Washington. Today, for you to have served in Iraq makes you a member of a rather small group of legislators. First, do you find that frustrating that the experience is so unusual for people in public office? And what do you intend to do on behalf of the people currently serving or who served?

GALLEGO: I do find it frustrating. And I don't believe that, you know, we should ever go back to a draft or anything else of that moment. I was in the combat arms of the Marines. I was in the infantry and it's very hard work and you have to want to be in the infantry.

You have to want to be a Marine in order to do your job well, but sometimes talking to politicians, and even to everyday citizens, their misconceptions about the military, about their capabilities, really scares me because it really just - I don't think it allows policymakers to know how to properly deploy the military. And, you know, I do wish if you don't serve in the military and you're a policymaker, I hope at least what they'll do is they will hire some veterans into their offices, you know, at least to kind of get a perspective of this.

SIEGEL: You're 35 years old.

GALLEGO: Yep.

SIEGEL: Ideally, how long would you like to serve in the House? Not that you've experienced being a congressman yet, but when you think about it...

GALLEGO: I mean, I think I could easily see myself serving 15-20 years. And, you know, there's a lot of politicians that will say, you know, I'm here for - to serve for two years and I'm out and I'm not going to be a lifelong politician, but I kind of feel that...

SIEGEL: Astonishingly, they're still saying that 20 years later.

GALLEGO: Yeah, exactly, and so I'm not really useful to my constituents if I'm only here for two years or four years. To be honest, if you're really going to do good work you do have to be here for a long time. And you have to learn the process and you have to build relationships with the Democrats and Republicans. And the only way you do that is by willing to put in the time to do it.

SIEGEL: Ruben Gallego, thanks for talking with us.

GALLEGO: Thank you, sir.

SIEGEL: And we'll be checking in with Democratic freshman Ruben Gallego and Republican freshman Mimi Walters over the coming months. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.