Washington — Michigan Democrats are welcoming four new members to the state's congressional delegation and aiming to tackle health care reform, including prescription drug costs, in the new Congress.
Democrats won at least 28 additional seats in the U.S. House in Tuesday's elections, gaining the majority and shifting Michigan's delegation to a 7-7 split between Republicans and Democrats. They may gain more seats after incomplete House election counts are finished.
Michigan's Democratic incumbents and the new delegation members say their agenda, in addition to health care, should include an infrastructure package, immigration and "serious" oversight of the Trump White House and his cabinet — issues many of them campaigned on.
"It gives us the chance, I hope, to advance a really meaningful agenda," said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, who in his fourth term will become the dean of Michigan's House Democrats with the retirement next year of longtime Rep. Sander Levin of Royal Oak.
He called on House Democrats to include Republicans in the legislative process and to be willing to compromise "to get things done for the people we care about."
"I hope we don’t default to taking retribution against Republicans for the way they misused their power by abusing it ourselves. We really need to be thoughtful about what we advance, and I’m excited about that," said Kildee of Flint Township.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this week suggested infrastructure is an area where he and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi could reach a bipartisan deal, but there might be other, limited areas of agreement.
President Donald Trump has also made infrastructure and lowering prescription drug prices priorities.
But divided government is a reality that Democrats must acknowledge, Kildee said.
"I don't think that should prevent us from putting forward bold ideas, whether it's infrastructure or immigration reform or anything I'd push — obviously very hard — is for an agenda for our older cities," he said.
He said Republican leaders rarely handled legislation in a bipartisan fashion, blocking amendments and rushing bills to the floor "that had barely been read."
"We need to be willing to put big ideas forward but also be willing to subject those ideas to a fair hearing," Kildee said.
'Gridlock not acceptable'
Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said there will be pressure on Democrats to deliver.
Her priority is to take action on escalating premium costs, higher deductibles and the cost of prescription drugs, but also technology issues from autonomous vehicles to privacy.
"There needs to be serious oversight, but we can’t be just anti-Trump. We have to work the issues the country is facing. Gridlock is not acceptable," she said.
"I’m going to protect the Constitution. I will not let him threaten freedom of speech or religion or press," added Dingell, noting the White House's decision Wednesday to suspend the credentials of a CNN reporter.
Dingell, who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said lawmakers also have a responsibility to attack water contaminants like the emerging class of fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS and "to hold EPA accountable for things they’re not doing."
Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, expects the caucus to put forward legislation to enhance border security and create a pathway to citizenship for the so-called "Dreamers," who were brought to the United States illegally as children.
She hopes Democrats also act to strengthen gun-safety laws, education, training for the skilled trades and infrastructure.
"Those are things we will be very focused on, and we 're going to make a difference," Lawrence said.
Former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit will replace former U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. in Congress starting in January.
"For many of the new women, especially new women of color that I've spoken to across the country, we are excited about the possibility of doing more work around poverty and more work around education equity," Tlaib said. "And finally feeling like people like us have a seat at the table."
The Congressional Progressive Caucus has expressed interest in her proposed reforms for the nation’s Civil Rights Act to target policies that disproportionately affect people of color, tighten the Title IX law and end the overuse of mandatory arbitration in corporate discrimination cases, she said.
Campaign finance reform
Elissa Slotkin, who defeated U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, signed a letter with 100 other Democratic candidates asking leadership to make campaign finance reform the first bill of the new Congress. Pelosi has indicated she wants to make it a first priority.
"Money in politics is so toxic, so debilitating to democracy. ... It undercuts all the progress we're trying to make," said Slotkin, who criticized Bishop during the campaign for accepting money from corporate interests and who raised more cash than he did.
"If you are taking a ton of money from the pharmaceutical industry, it's really hard for you to be an honest broker in negotiations on how to curb prices of pharmaceuticals."
Democrats should be "ashamed" if they don't take up health care, which constituents are concerned about, added Slotkin of Holly.
She spoke of her mother, who would have been "thrilled" to witness Slotkin's election Tuesday but died in 2011 of ovarian cancer.
"She was not there with me because she died of a terrible disease that we caught too late, and health care was absolutely the bane of her adult life," Slotkin said.
"That is my mandate, and I want to be part of a bipartisan, honest-to-God conversation about how we provide health care to our citizens, how we provide more choices."
Andy Levin, who won election to succeed his father, Sander, in Michigan's 9th District, wants to take up ethics reform, campaign finance, gun safety and infrastructure legislation, in addition to labor law reform.
"We can do a lot of things that point the way toward a better future, so that when we move into 2020 people really have something to vote for, not just vote against," Levin said.
Levin of Bloomfield Township also wants to see greater oversight of "all the corruption of these cabinet ministers." He offered as an example Education Secretary Betsy DeVos axing Obama-era rules meant to curb abuses by for-profit colleges and universities.
Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills was elected Tuesday to succeed retiring Republican Rep. Dave Trott of Birmingham.
Prescription drugs are "something that will hit the docket right away," Stevens predicted.
"We’re also going to see the infrastructure guarantee come to fruition — that’s every person having access to clean and safe drinking water, safe and maintained roadways and seizing all the innovation opportunities," she said.
No Michigan Democrats are poised to chair any House committees next session, but they're seeking other leadership roles.
Dingell, a former member of the Democratic National Committee, is running to co-chair the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, the messaging arm of House Democratic leadership.
"It is very important that the heartland be one of the perspectives represented by one of the three co-chairs," Dingell told colleagues in a letter asking for their support last month.
Kildee is also eyeing a bid for leadership in the House Democratic Caucus but hasn't yet launched a campaign.
He also hopes to join the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Kildee is now the vice ranking Democrat on the influential House Financial Services Committee.
Lawrence said she is running to chair the Democratic Women’s Working Group, of which she is currently vice chair. She said she is also seeking to join the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
Tlaib is also targeting the Appropriations Committee — a role she held for six years in the state House.
"I represent the third-poorest congressional district in the country," she said. "I'm really good at it. I know how to unroll budgets."
Exclusive committee assignments such Appropriations or Ways and Means rarely go to freshmen, but Tlaib said it's happened before.
Levin, who has a background in labor issues and green energy, said he'd love to serve on the Ways and Means or Energy and Commerce panels but acknowledged the role that seniority plays in selection.
He's also interested in Committee on Education and the Workforce, as well as the Transportation and Infrastructure panel, Foreign Affairs and Financial Services.
Stevens is also interested in the Committee on Education and the Workforce or the Transportation Committee.
Slotkin said she hasn't zeroed in on any panels yet. Both the Armed Services and intelligence panels would make sense considering her background in national security and defense.