WASHINGTON — Reporters from around the country swarmed around Sen. Mitt Romney as soon as the Utah Republican emerged from his temporary office Thursday in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building.
He is Utah’s junior senator who, as expected, easily won the open seat vacated by retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch. But you wouldn’t know it by the attention he was getting and the questions being fired at him about his rebuke of President Donald Trump’s character and lack of leadership in an op-ed published Tuesday in the Washington Post.
“I think it is important as I begin this new responsibility to lay out my priorities and objectives that I was sent here to do,” Romney said, repeating his standard response to speculation that the op-ed was an attempt to create a resistance to Trump and his allies. “I’m not worried about what other people think about what I have to say.”
Across the Capitol complex in the Cannon House Office Building was a very different scene in the quiet offices of Rep. Ben McAdams, who narrowly won a House seat that Republicans weren’t supposed to lose.
He politely posed for a photographer as his wife, Julie, helped ready their four children to sit next to their father on the House floor when he was sworn in as Utah’s lone Democrat in the state’s six-member congressional delegation. Julie and her mother would look on from the House gallery.
“The kids are worried that it would be boring and I told them it would be,” McAdams said between poses.
But the stakes couldn’t be higher as the 116th Congress was installed, ushering in a new era of divided government and rank partisanship as a Democratically controlled House confronts Trump to resolve a partial government shutdown and his demand to pay for a border wall.
McAdams joins a diverse new class of Democrats in the House that, according to the Associated Press, reflects the makeup of the country with more women than ever before, along with Muslims, Latinos, Native Americans and African-Americans.
McAdams made good on a promise to voters to break from his party to vote against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. as his party leader. But his lone vote for Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., was largely symbolic as Pelosi already had the votes to capture a historic second term as speaker.
McAdams was among 15 Democrats to vote for someone other than Pelosi. “It really is a sincere belief of my own that we need new leadership in Congress from both parties,” McAdams told the Deseret News before his vote. Murphy is chairwoman of the Blue Dog Democrats caucus, a group of moderate Democrats who advocate for fiscal responsibility and a strong defense that McAdams has joined.
Romney, meanwhile, was among 29 new or re-elected senators joining a body of largely white males, where the Republican majority was bolstered after the 2018 midterm elections.
After he officially took his oath of office in the Senate he attended a reception where he glad handed with the likes of Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a rising star in the Democratic party, and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who is leading the opposition to Trump’s border wall funding.
With his wife, Ann, holding the Bible his father used to be sworn in as governor of Michigan and that he used to take the oath of the same office in Massachusetts, Romney was ceremonially sworn in. They then left for their grand-daughter’s wedding in Paris, France.
Meanwhile, in the House chamber, McAdams listened as Pelosi pledged to make Congress work for all Americans as her party is ready to challenge Trump with investigations and subpoena powers that threaten the White House agenda. According to the AP, it’s the first new Congress to convene amid a partial government shutdown, now in its 13th day over Trump’s demands for money for a wall along the U.S-Mexico border.
Into the early evening, the House debated the Democrats' two-part solution that would reopen government, but without the $5.6 billion Trump has requested to build a wall. A second bill would temporarily fund the Department of Homeland Security through Feb. 8 as talks would continue.
“We owe it to the American people to reopen the government and restore the services they rely on,” McAdams said explaining his support for the proposal. “There is an important debate that needs to happen about border security and immigration reform and we should work to find common ground, but that shouldn’t get in the way of providing services the American people need, day to day.”
But Senate Republican leadership said such a proposal is dead on arrival since they will not pass a bill that the president won’t sign.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that Republicans have shown the Senate is “fertile soil for big bipartisan accomplishments,” but that the question is whether House Democrats will engage in “good governance or political performance art.”
In an interview with CNN Wednesday, Romney, who supports his GOP colleagues in the Senate in rejecting the House proposal, said all sides will need to compromise to end the partial shutdown.
“There has to be some kind of deal done where the Democrats get something and the Republicans get something. That's the way things are done in Washington,” Romney said.
The day before Congress convened the freshman senator had Washington abuzz with his op-ed that took Trump to task and outlined his priorities for his tenure.
In response to speculation that Romney issued the statement as a signal he’s interested in another run for president in 2020, he said an emphatic, no. Otherwise, he said the piece was simply a declaration on how he plans to operate as a senator.
“I thought it was important before I begin to serve in the Senate to describe my priorities and my perspectives to people I will be working with and how I will work with them,” he told the Deseret News. “I will work with president as I have said before when we agree on issues and when we don’t, which won’t be very often, I will make that very clear.”
He explained that while he agrees with many of the president’s policies, Trump should “up his game” in lifting the nation through his own behavior and words, a lesson Romney said he has learned from reading the biographies of past presidents, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“When you look at the history of our country … a greater impact than the policies they put in place was the character they exhibited … and those kinds of things shaped the character of the country,” he said.74 comments on this story
Romney said today’s politics are too divisive and that politicians have found it works for them when they attack and use fear and resentment as part of their campaigns. He said the Senate has a tradition of people with differing views coming together to resolve issues and that his op-ed showed he is willing to be a part of that.
“We need to come together,” he said. “It’s good politics to divide, but it’s bad for the country to divide. I think it’s important for leaders of all kinds to see if they can’t help bring us together.”
Contributing: Associated Press