It’s officially the start of a new congressional term and the dawn of Democratic House control under President Donald Trump.
A historically diverse body of lawmakers are due to get sworn in on Thursday for a term that’s likely to include a rise in investigations of Trump and an ongoing reckoning among Democrats about which direction the party should go.
The new freshman class includes Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Lucy McBath of Georgia, all of whom are poised to push Democrats on an array of policy areas such as climate change, health care, and gun control. Additionally, longtime Democratic stalwarts like Maxine Waters and Adam Schiff of California will play a pivotal role in launching probes of the Trump administration.
On the other side of the aisle, a lot of the focus will be on Republicans like the Freedom Caucus’s Mark Meadows, who’s made it his mission to protect Trump and will likely continue doing so as Democrats take over. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York is also mounting a push to improve women’s representation in the GOP, which has taken a severe hit during the recent election.
Here are nine lawmakers, freshman and not, to watch this term.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY)
Ocasio-Cortez took national politics by storm the moment she won her New York primary. The self-proclaimed Democratic socialist and former Bernie Sanders organizer sent a shock wave through the Democratic Party when she defeated Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley in a June primary. (Crowley was widely seen as next in line to become House speaker).
Since coming to Washington, Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t stopped making waves. She’s been using her formidable social media presence to advocate for progressive causes, most notably a plan called the Green New Deal. It’s a wide-ranging document that calls on the US to produce all of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, but it also includes provisions for single-payer health care and a jobs guarantee program.
In other words, it’s a progressive mission statement, not really a bill that could pass the current Republican-controlled Senate. But Ocasio-Cortez is all about bold progressive ideas and has become one of the loudest voices of the Democratic Party’s left wing. It remains to be seen whether Ocasio-Cortez will work within the existing system in the House, or continue to push from the outside, and whether that strategy will be an effective one.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY)
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) thinks the Republican Party has a massive problem with women. And she isn’t being shy about talking about it.
As head of recruitment for the National Republican Congressional Committee, Stefanik recruited more than 100 Republican women to run for office in 2018. Only one — Carol Miller of West Virginia — made it to the US House. Meanwhile, Democratic women had a historic year, running and winning in record numbers.
Stefanik thinks Republicans have messed up with their women voters, and she’s stepping away from the NRCC to try to give women candidates a better shot in 2020.
“I want to play in primaries, and I want to play big in primaries,” Stefanik told Roll Call’s Simone Pathe in December, directly contradicting the new NRCC chair.
Republican women in the House saw their numbers shrink in 2018, a reflection of how hard it is to embrace being a woman candidate in a party that traditionally shies away from identity politics; is made up overwhelmingly of white men; and is currently led by President Donald Trump, who has bragged about groping women. Stefanik wants to make it easier for Republican women to run and win in this tough environment and (as she recently tweeted), she isn’t asking anyone’s permission to do so.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA)
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), the incoming House Financial Services Committee Chair and longtime thorn in Trump’s side, will likely be pushing the president’s buttons even more this term, as Democrats retake control of the House and kick off investigations into everything, including his personal finances.
As Vox’s Emily Stewart reported, Waters has long pressed for probes into Trump’s financial dealings while she’s been in the minority, and now that Democrats are in control, she’ll have a slew of tools like subpoenas and oversight hearings at her disposal.
“It’s been a little bit of a sleepy committee for the last few years, but that’s going to change if Rep. Waters gets the gavel,” Isaac Boltansky, director of policy research at research firm Compass Point, told Stewart last year.
Since the start of the Trump administration, Waters has also emerged as a particularly captivating leader for the so-called “resistance” given her ongoing opposition to the President. Affectionately nicknamed “Auntie Maxine” by her supporters, Waters has inspired an avid social media following and spawned a series of viral clips.
For much of Trump’s term, Waters has been vocal about her concerns with his leadership. With Democrats back in power, she’ll be able to translate this pushback into even more concrete actions.
Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA)
Rep. Lucy McBath — a longtime gun control activist whose son was murdered in 2012— surprised many by flipping a district in the midterms that Democrats had previously failed to retake during a high-profile special election in 2017.
McBath is nationally known for her gun control advocacy, a mantle she’s taken on as a prominent speaker for “Mothers of the Movement” as well as a surrogate for the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016. She’s long called on Congress to impose stricter gun control laws that would include more stringent background checks and has testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee to oppose “Stand Your Ground” laws that protect people who use deadly force in self-defense.
Congress has repeatedly expressed an interest in passing gun control reforms but failed to approve particularly expansive ones in the past. McBath’s stunning victory, which reestablished Democratic control of a district once held by Newt Gingrich and Tom Price, could significantly raise the pressure on lawmakers to consider substantive reforms.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA)
Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) is one of several freshman Democrats who helped the party flip the House — and she did so by taking down Rep. Dave Brat, a Virginia Republican incumbent. Unlike some of her progressive counterparts, Spanberger is a new face who’s not particularly interested in pushing the party further to the left.
A former CIA operative, Spanberger is among the Democrats from a more purple district who have staked their candidacies — and now their congressional seats — on an exceedingly moderate and bipartisan approach to different policies: opposing Medicare-for-all and championing fiscal responsibility, for example. She’s also part of a chorus of Democrats who opposed the leadership of presumptive speaker Nancy Pelosi, a position she committed to during the midterms.
As a member of the more conservative Blue Dog Coalition, Spanberger’s vision is one that’s expected to clash with that of fellow freshmen like Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib. As the 116th Congress gets underway, it will be interesting to observe how these two wings of the Democratic Party negotiate their approaches with one another, and whether Spanberger’s take offers a way for Democrats to keep on winning in more right-leaning districts.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA)
After just two years in Congress, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) is at the helm of the House Progressive Caucus. Jayapal, a former immigration activist and Washington state senator who joined Congress in 2017, has risen to co-chair of progressive caucus, a duty she shares with Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI).
Jayapal went from being a freshman House member to one of the progressive movement’s most visible faces in a short amount of time. An immigrant from India, Jayapal has been incredibly active on the issue of immigration, joining the migrant caravan from Central America. Last year, she introduced a controversial bill that among other things, would have abolished Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). That bill responded to the wants of the leftist base, but it also exposed a rift in the party as many Democrats refused to back the idea.
She’s using House Democrats newfound power to bargain for more progressives on important committees. She has also partnered with big names on legislation, including Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) — two Democrats on the shortlist for 2020. Jayapal endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016, but as 2020 heats up, presidential candidates will be actively courting her endorsement.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC)
Rep. Mark Meadows might not be Trump’s chief of staff, but if the December shutdown skirmish was any indication, he definitely still has a fair amount of sway with the president. During a tumultuous back-and-forth over wall funding in December, Meadows and fellow Freedom Caucus member Jim Jordan played a pivotal role in convincing Trump not to cave on his wall demands — something he had previously seemed set on doing.
That move sent pretty much all of Congress into a tizzy as the House sought to approve $5 billion in wall funding, while the Senate continued to resist it. Throwing a wrench into lawmakers’ expectations is something Meadows has been all too familiar with during his role as chair of the Freedom Caucus, when he’s bucked House leadership on numerous occasions to make a point on issues as varied as health care and immigration.
As the head of roughly 40 members in the Caucus, Meadows has had incredible leverage over any kind of Republican decision in the House, and it’s looking like he isn’t done stirring the pot. While he won’t have quite the same pull this term given the Democratic majority, Meadows still looks on track to make his presence known as one of the president’s key defenders.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY)
If you asked the House Democrats who wanted to see Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenants step aside who should take their place, you’d often find Hakeem Jeffries’s name first on their lists. But the New York Democrat didn’t make any sudden moves for House speaker, settling for the position of Democratic caucus chair.
In doing so, Jeffries filled a cry for new blood in leadership that has been stagnant for years. At 48 years old, Jeffries is a relatively young member (he’s joined by new Assistant Democratic Leader Ben Ray Lujan, who is 46).
Caucus chair may be the No. 5 position now that Democrats are in the majority party, but it’s an important stepping stone for anyone who wants to be speaker someday. Many Democrats are already talking about Jeffries taking the top spot in the future. (Though there is griping from the progressive wing of the party about Jeffries taking money from corporate PACs.)
As the new head of a large and diverse caucus, Jeffries must run meetings of the entire Democratic caucus and help set the party’s policy agenda. With Pelosi recently indicating she’ll step aside after 2022, the next few years will be a critical test of whether he’s ready for the job of speaker.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI)
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), an unabashed progressive, will be one of the first Muslim women to serve in Congress, marking huge inroads for representation in the government body.
Tlaib — as well Rep. Ilhan Omar, who is also Muslim — will be sworn in on a Quran that was previously Thomas Jefferson’s. “I’m going to be a woman, a mom, a Muslimah, a Palestinian, an Arab and so many of these other layers of these identities depending on who I’m talking to and what they want to identify me as,” Tlaib previously told CNN.
Tlaib, much like Ocasio-Cortez, is a card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America who’s advocated for Medicare-for-all as well as debt-free college. She’s also already established herself as a vocal critic of Trump and pushed his impeachment as a key tenet of her congressional campaign.
If an early gift she gave other Congress members was any indication, it’s clear that she won’t be letting up.