Freshmen Members Stake Out Roles in House As the new Congress convenes, freshmen members are arriving in Washington and settling into their new offices. A couple of them talk about their hopes of bipartisanship and how much they think new members of Congress can contribute to the debate in Washington.
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Freshmen Members Stake Out Roles in House

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Freshmen Members Stake Out Roles in House

Freshmen Members Stake Out Roles in House

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On Tuesday afternoon, freshman Republican Congressman Peter Roskam, his wife Elizabeth and their four children were in the family mini-van, driving east.

(Soundbite of dialing phone)

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Representative PETER ROSKAM (Republican, Illinois): This is Peter.

SIEGEL: Hi. It's Robert Siegel from ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Rep. ROSKAM: Hey, Robert. How are you?

SIEGEL: The Illinois Republican was driving from his district in the suburbs west of Chicago toward the suburbs of Washington D.C.

Rep. ROSKAM: We're just north of Pittsburgh, cruising, making good time on the clear road. So what's your…

Unidentified Woman: Welcome to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

SIEGEL: Later on Tuesday, Gabrielle Giffords, freshman Democrat from Arizona, was arriving by plane.

Representative GABRIELLE GIFFORDS (Democrat, Arizona): You know, I got dropped off this morning at the airport in a ‘63 Chevy pickup truck. Got my cowboy boots. Met up with my fiancé. Life's good and very, very excited, and so optimistic about taking a country in a new direction.

SIEGEL: Meanwhile, back on the highway.

Rep. ROSKAM: You know what, I'm in some hills in Pennsylvania and I think I'm starting to lose you.

SIEGEL: You're starting to lose me, OK.

By Tuesday night, the two first-term members had arrived. And by yesterday, they'd seen their offices, both on the fifth floor of the Cannon House Office Building.

Unidentified Man: Hey, this looks good.

Rep. ROSKAM: You know.

Unidentified Woman #2: Is this the (Unintelligible)?

Rep. ROSKAM: Yeah.

Unidentified Man: Have you guys all sorted out who's sitting where yet?

Rep. ROSKAM: Yeah. I think he's there. I'll sit here.

Unidentified Man: And do we have a phone number?

SIEGEL: The fifth floor, the top floor of the Cannon Building, is freshmen territory. It's about as far away as a Congressional office can be from the House floor, which is in the Capitol Building across Independence Avenue, a solid 10 minute walk through a basement tunnel. For a vote, it would be not so much a sprint as a middle distance run. From her office just down the corridor, Gabrielle Giffords has perhaps a 30-second advantage.

Rep. GIFFORDS: Hey, how are you?

Unidentified Woman #3: All right.

Rep. GIFFORDS: So maybe you can help us move the furniture around a bit.

Unidentified Man #2: Where do you want it?

Rep. GIFFORDS: I don't know. We need good feng shui.

SIEGEL: The two House freshmen, Democrat Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and Republican Peter Roskam of Illinois, joined us at the Capitol to talk about some things that they agree about and some things they disagree about. I asked Gabrielle Giffords what difference a Democratic majority will mean to her constituents when it comes to, say, immigration?

Rep. GIFFORDS: Immigration is a top priority. We feel that we're disproportionately being burdened by the costs for law enforcement, schools, healthcare because we're right on the border. But areas as well that are important are making sure that our country is safe, making sure that people can afford their prescription drugs. When it comes to areas such as defense, Iraq, that's a top priority as well. People are passionate about this new Congress and I'm excited to be here.

SIEGEL: Congressman Roskam, you're now here in the minority, but you've worked for your predecessor, Congressman Hyde, who was a Republican congressman for some years; and also for Tom DeLay before that. In the minority, as you listen to what Rep. Gifford says she'd like to see emerge in this Congress, does it sound desirable or doable to you?

Rep. ROSKAM: Well, I think it is. You know, I think the folks of my district sent me here regardless of who had to gavel. I've represented part of a district both in the minority and in the majority in the Illinois House and in the Illinois Senate and hope to use those skills. Part of that is reaching to like-minded folks across the aisle for areas where you can seek common ground, and where you can't seek common ground, hopefully do it in a way that is charming and winsome.

SIEGEL: But my understanding, tell me if I'm wrong, the way things are going to work now, is the reaching out begins sometime late next week. The first - the beginning, the first things that you will happen in the House are going to be things that the Democratic majority is going to vote and approve.

Rep. GIFFORDS: Well, I hope that's not the case, because the agenda items that are being brought forward have bipartisan support. And they are certainly areas that I believe that not just Democrats but Republicans can agree upon, and I hope to have a lot of support from Democrats and the Republicans.

Rep. ROSKAM: Historically, the way this works in my view is good bipartisanship means that you have a good debate on the floor. And in order to have a good debate, you have to have amendments offered and the ability to vote up and down on those amendments. I think the proof will be in the pudding if the Democrat leadership allows those amendments.

SIEGEL: Seems like a tall order. You come here. You've got John Dingell, who was here back I think when the Democrats were in the minority in the ‘50s briefly. He was already a member of the House. How much can freshmen do, how much influence, Congressman Giffords, can you have?

Rep. GIFFORDS: Well, certainly, we're a big class. And many of us were elected in Republican leaning districts, and many of us also understand the fact that one of the largest growing political affiliations are independents in this country. And I think that speaks the fact that Americans are tired of the partisanship and the bickering and they want a Congress that are going to roll up their sleeves and get to work for the American people.

SIEGEL: You know, Peter Roskam, that in a way the two of you, whether in Illinois or Arizona, are both thinking of the same kind of voters who just helped you get to Congress. Do you think that's true?

Rep. ROSKAM: I do think that's true. I would echo those sentiments exactly. I think there's some ways in which partisanship affiliation is waning somewhat. And independent voters are far more interested in issue-oriented things; I talked a lot in my campaign, for example, about taxes and spending. Those issues can transcend donkeys and elephants. But I think a lot is going to depend on what the new speaker decides.

SIEGEL: Rep. Giffords was talking about immigration in her huge border district in Arizona. In the last Congress, the president's ideas about immigrations really ran around here in the House with the Republicans. First of all, would you vote against the same package that the president and the majority of the Senate had supported last time?

Rep. ROSKAM: Yes. It was a very big issue in the course of my campaign for the United States Congress. And I maintain that we ought not a policy of amnesty, and the folks in my district agreed with that heartedly.

Rep. GIFFORDS: But the reality is on an issue like immigration, which is a so critical; it's not part of the first 100 hour agenda, unfortunately. The complexity of this legislation isn't just about amnesty or no amnesty. There's a multi-faceted approach to this problem and our Congress needs to do something. So I'm looking forward to working with folks like Pete and other Republicans, but we have to do something here.

SIEGEL: The Democratic Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and Republican Peter Roskam. Illinois, two members of the freshman class of the House of Representatives. Thank you both verify much for talking with us.

Rep. ROSKAM: Thank you very much.

Rep. GIFFORDS: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: And throughout this year we hope to be talking with both Representative Giffords and Representative Roskam from time to time.

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