Suburban congressional newbies adjust to life in Washington

  • Rep.-elect Lauren Underwood walks outside following a photo opportunity on Capitol Hill in Washington last month.

    Rep.-elect Lauren Underwood walks outside following a photo opportunity on Capitol Hill in Washington last month. Associated Press

  • U.S. Rep.-elect Lauren Underwood reacts after picking her number in the lottery draw Nov. 30 on Capitol Hill in Washington to determine the order in which she can select her office.

    U.S. Rep.-elect Lauren Underwood reacts after picking her number in the lottery draw Nov. 30 on Capitol Hill in Washington to determine the order in which she can select her office. Associated Press

  • U.S. Rep.-elect Lauren Underwood meets with new constituent Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin Thursday at Aurora City Hall.

      U.S. Rep.-elect Lauren Underwood meets with new constituent Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin Thursday at Aurora City Hall. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • U.S. Rep.-elect Sean Casten undergoes orientation at the U.S. Capitol in November.

    U.S. Rep.-elect Sean Casten undergoes orientation at the U.S. Capitol in November. Courtesy OF Sean Casten

  • Incoming U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, center, meets with, from left, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Sen. Dick Durbin and Reps. Bill Foster and Brad Schneider in Washington.

    Incoming U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, center, meets with, from left, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Sen. Dick Durbin and Reps. Bill Foster and Brad Schneider in Washington. Courtesy OF Sean Casten

  • U.S. Rep. Sean Casten talks about health care with constituents this summer in Downers Grove.

    U.S. Rep. Sean Casten talks about health care with constituents this summer in Downers Grove. Daily Herald file photo

 
 
Posted12/17/2018 5:30 AM

Sean Casten is finalizing the purchase of a studio condo. Lauren Underwood is shopping for dishes and a desk.

As the suburbs' two rookie members of Congress head to Washington, they're prepping for one of the most monumental House sessions in history and balancing that with the more mundane but necessary details of setting up second homes.

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In November, the two Democrats attended congressional boot camp, joining a freshman class of 100 that's creating buzz for its diversity and nonconformity.

Naperville's Underwood got chills as advisers instructed the newcomers how to vote. She first stood in the 161-year-old House of Representatives in 2006 as an intern for then-Sen. Barack Obama.

"I never thought I would have an opportunity to work there," Underwood said.

Now, "I have my voting card, my name is on the wall and I belong there. It's such an honor."

Casten, of Downers Grove, found orientation to "the world's greatest deliberative body" paradoxical, with "moments of beauty punctuated by long periods of boredom" as members boned up on protocols.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

He went from being humbled to work in the same building as Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy to being bewildered -- "I don't know how to get from Point A to Point B."

The two suburbanites also participated in a tradition: entering a lottery for dibs on the best offices on Capitol Hill.

Casten drew No. 80, putting him among the last to pick. "If you want to come over in the fall and see the (metal) rebar change colors, there's a great view," he said of his utilitarian space in the Cannon House Office Building.

Underwood did a little better. She selected 70 and is ensconced in the Longworth House Office Building.

The 116th Congress will be sworn in Jan. 3.

The session is expected to be head-spinning with domestic and foreign policy showdowns. Looming over all is the prospect of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller's issuing a report putting Donald Trump's presidency in jeopardy.

Congress has clear oversight powers, Underwood said, and "the administration should be held accountable for actions that may not be lawful or ethical."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In the midst of the churn, lawmakers need to act on issues Americans care about, including lower prescription drug prices, the registered nurse said.

Casten predicts the Republican-controlled Senate will squelch major legislation from the Democratic House but sees bipartisan daylight on "small things."

Tweaking rules to equalize tax credits for clean-energy technologies could go a long way to lowering pollution and creating jobs, he thinks.

"You could do that -- not in a climate bill but in a tax bill," said Casten, a scientist.

The 116th Congress is breaking records for the number of women and minorities serving. After defeating incumbent Randy Hultgren, Underwood is among the trailblazers as the first woman and first black member of Congress from the 14th District.

During orientation, the freshman class walked out of a caucus meeting and into camera crews seeking out the trendsetters.

Casten gained notice for defeating longtime Republican Peter Roskam, but at this moment he and three other white men -- Reps. Mike Levin, Tom Malinkowski and Josh Harder -- were ignored.

"No one wants to talk to the white dudes," Casten recalled joking with his colleagues. "It was amusing and beautiful."

He expects to split his time between Washington and his 6th District constituents and family, which includes two daughters ages 11 and 13.

The surest way to lose an election is to spend as little time as possible in your district, Casten said.

Underwood has a similar philosophy. She intends to hold a second swearing-in ceremony back in the 14th District for her constituents.

Decorating her new apartment in D.C. is not on the priority list for January.

"We'll likely furnish it over time," she said.

"I just need a bed, a bowl for some cereal and a little desk with a light on it."

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