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Two of the newest members of Congress weigh in on the State of the Union address

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

As President Biden addressed a divided Congress last night, he repeatedly appealed to lawmakers to finish the job on his wide-ranging agenda.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Let's finish the job and get more families access to affordable, quality housing.

Let's come together to finish the job on police reform.

Let's finish the job and ban these assault weapons.

Let's finish the job this time. Let's cap the cost of medicine for everybody at $35.

(CHEERING)

SUMMERS: However unlikely some of those priorities are now with the Republican-controlled House, the president urged his GOP counterparts to identify areas for compromise.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2023 STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

BIDEN: If we could work together the last Congress, there's no reason we can't work together and find consensus on important things in this Congress as well.

(APPLAUSE)

SUMMERS: That line got a head nod and a polite hand clap from Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy. But other moments laid bare the political tensions at play, earning Biden shouts and jeers from Republicans.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2023 STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

BIDEN: Some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset. I'm not saying it's a majority.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Booing).

SUMMERS: Witnessing all that drama in person last night were my next two guests, Democrat Maxwell Frost from Florida and Republican Mike Lawler from New York. They are two of the newest members of Congress, and we've been checking in with them as they navigate their first few months in the House.

We'll start today with Congressman Frost. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MAXWELL FROST: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me on.

SUMMERS: So last night, you attended your first State of the Union as a member of Congress. Tell us, what was it like being in the House chamber as the president spoke to members of Congress like yourself, as well as the country?

FROST: I mean, it was surreal. I'm used to being in an apartment, listening in with some friends. And just now, fast-forwarding to this year, being in the chamber, being surrounded by some of my freshman colleagues and being there, feeling that energy in person and - the good energy and also, you know, some of the negative energy, I mean, it was - the entire thing was surreal. But I will tell you that the House was definitely bumpin (ph) for the president and the message that he brought.

SUMMERS: You tweeted out a selfie from last night pointing out that you were wearing a March For Our Lives pin on your suit jacket. And you and I first met when you were working for that group, which emerged after the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla. And President Biden did address gun violence last night. Can you just tell us what you thought of what you heard from the president?

FROST: I mean, I thought what he said was great. You know, we do need to ban assault weapons. But we also - you know, I always ask the question, what's next, right? What's the marker that the president has set down? And I was a little disappointed to not hear him talk about specific actions that he would take. But overall, it was just great to hear him champion it.

SUMMERS: Throughout the speech, President Biden seemed quite optimistic that the House can work together in a bipartisan manner over these next two years. But I'd like to ask you, now that you're a month into the job as a member of Congress, do you see any ways that people on both sides of the aisle can work together, how the temperature can be turned down to the benefit of all Americans?

FROST: Well, yeah. I mean, what would need to happen is people would need to take a step back, put the politics aside and really focus on policy. There are Republican members that I think are really down to work on bipartisan legislation that's going to be helpful. But if you think Speaker McCarthy is going to bring anything to the floor that's actually going to change people's lives in a meaningful way in terms of bold legislation, then you're wrong. And unfortunately, that's the reality we're dealing with.

SUMMERS: I'd like to ask you, if I could, about the politics within your own party. This is a speech that seemed to preview themes that could become a part of an expected 2024 presidential campaign by President Biden. Is the message that you heard from the president at the Capitol one that you believe can win over voters, even some Democrats within your own party, who are not sold on him as the right person for the job in 2024?

FROST: I do. Some of the loudest people last night in terms of clapping and excitement were progressives in the House. The president, I think, really laid out our values, laid out what we believe in and what values we're not going to compromise. And I think most people agree with that. And that's why when we see the polls from the speech last night and people who watched it, overwhelmingly people were excited about that speech and agree with the messaging. And I think it really - you know, it cut through the television and hit to, you know, people sitting in their living rooms and all the issues that impact folks, especially working families.

SUMMERS: That is Democratic Congressman Maxwell Frost of Florida. Thank you so much.

FROST: Thank you for having me on.

SUMMERS: Next, I want to bring in Republican Congressman Mike Lawler of New York, who's also a freshman lawmaker. Welcome back.

MIKE LAWLER: Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: So this was your first State of the Union as a member of Congress. What was it like?

LAWLER: Well, as I've watched almost every State of the Union for as long as I've been alive, and it was a wonderful experience to be there and all the more special. My wife, an immigrant from Moldova who became a citizen two years ago, was my guest. And so she was able to listen to the president of United States deliver his State of the Union. And it was, on a personal level, a very exciting and proud moment.

SUMMERS: During the speech last night, the president said over and over again - he used the phrase, let's finish the job. And he was suggesting that though the Congress is divided, there's still a possibility of being able to work together to accomplish major legislation. Do you agree with that?

LAWLER: Well, I certainly agree there's a lot of opportunity to work together. And throughout the speech, I certainly applauded numerous things that he talked about, including the bipartisan infrastructure bill. But to be honest with you, I was a little disappointed. It's not enough to just talk about it but to really lay out an agenda where we can work together. And I think it was a missed opportunity, frankly.

And I think really where it was unfortunate was during the discussion on the debt ceiling, when he blatantly misstated the Republican position by saying that we're going to gut Social Security and Medicare. I am long on the record saying that I will not support any legislation to do that. But more importantly, the speaker is on the record saying that we are not going to do that. So I think that was very disingenuous and unfortunate.

SUMMERS: And that was a moment that prompted a great deal of response from a number of your Republican colleagues. And I have to say, I've also spent much of my life watching State of the Union addresses, covering these speeches, and it sounded and looked different than speeches I've heard in the past. What was that moment like for you in the House chamber?

LAWLER: Well, frankly, to some degree, I think the president enjoyed the back and forth and kind of played into it a little bit. Look; I think the president missed an opportunity last night to really forge a path forward, both in tone, in style and in substance.

SUMMERS: You have mentioned several times that the speech was a missed opportunity, but you've also mentioned that there were several bipartisan achievements that you heard in the speech that you were able to applaud. I am curious, can you give me an example or two of where you see opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to work together?

LAWLER: Well, absolutely. I think when you look at our debt ceiling crisis, we're going to need to work together. There is no longer a one-party rule in Washington. So Democrats and Republicans have to come together to work on the big issues that we're dealing with, whether we're talking about the debt ceiling, whether we're talking about immigration, the problems at our border. These are challenges that we have to work together on. And I'm very much committed to doing that. But I think, you know, last night, the president could have really laid out some concrete proposals about how we do that, and I didn't hear that. And I think that was in large part where the missed opportunity was to forge that path forward.

SUMMERS: That was Republican Congressman Mike Lawler of New York. Thanks so much.

LAWLER: Thank you.

SUMMERS: And earlier, I spoke with Democratic Representative Maxwell Frost of Florida - two of the newest members of the House of Representatives. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lee Hale
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.