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Freshman congressman frustrated by extremists but hopeful of finding middle

By Lisa Desjardins and John Helton, CNN
updated 2:36 PM EDT, Mon August 5, 2013
Members of the House of Representatives leave the U.S. Capitol on Friday at the start of their summer recess.
Members of the House of Representatives leave the U.S. Capitol on Friday at the start of their summer recess.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Freshman Rep. Eric Swalwell unseated long-time congressman last year
  • 'Biggest problem is we're voting on extremes,' Swalwell said
  • Swalwell says the institution could use 'a serious technological upgrade'
  • California congressman formed bipartisan group of about 30 fellow freshmen

Washington (CNN) -- As Congress leaves the Capitol for its five-week August recess, freshman Rep. Eric Swalwell is headed home a little frustrated.

"The biggest problem for me is we're voting on extremes. You don't see compromise bills," he said Thursday evening on the east steps of the Capitol after a vote.

"When they're voting to just repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), I want to mend it, not end it. The bills are 'repeal it,' with no other solution."

Rep. Eric Swalwell
Rep. Eric Swalwell

As if to prove his point, in its last act before the recess, the Republican-controlled House on Friday passed a resolution to prevent the Internal Revenue Service from implementing Obamacare -- the 40th time it has voted to repeal, dismantle or defund the Affordable Care Act. With Democrats in control of the Senate, the measure has no chance of passing there.

Obamacare battle heads to states

Swalwell, who represents California's 15th District, which encompasses part of Silicon Valley and is considered one of the country's wealthiest, defeated fellow Democrat Rep. Pete Stark last year. The 32-year-old wasn't yet born when Stark was first elected to Congress in 1973.

"New energy, new ideas is what [my campaign] was about," he said. "Using social media to reach different people."

But seven months in, he finds the pace a bit sluggish.

"It's frustrating," he said. "I was a prosecutor before I came here, so I would get a case, I would review the evidence, put it in front of a jury, get a verdict. Move on. Here John Dingell put a health care bill in the hopper every year for 50 years before we got health care. The place just moves slower than I like."

Members of Congress start 5-week recess
Congress prepares for recess
Is Congress getting anything done?

"Right now we're throwing one-yard passes and I want to throw a touchdown."

How low can Congress go?

Swalwell is also frustrated by some of the archaic practices of the institution and thinks it needs "a serious technological upgrade."

"It's an institution that still operates under many 18th century rules," he said. "And I think we can honor the tradition of the institution and still upgrade the institution and use a lot of technologies that private industry uses."

Swalwell is a big proponent of social media and is pushing for Congress to use it more, but his Vining his "no" vote on a House bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy broke a House rule on video recording in the chamber. Leaders issued a statement stressing the rule but Swalwell stood by his Vine.

Swalwell has formed a bipartisan group of about 30 House freshmen called the United Solutions Caucus, which held a forum on Thursday in which both the liberal Center for American Progress and the conservative Heritage Foundation participated. Then his office threw a barbecue on the balcony.

To try and get Congress to get more work done, Swalwell and and Republican Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico proposed electronic voting from districts on non-substantive bills, "So, when we're actually here, (we can) do real, substantive work rather than these suspension bills where we're just stating the sense of Congress or allowing the Boy Scouts to use the Capitol grounds for the Soap Box Derby."

CNN analysis: Congress in D.C. far less than it used to be

On the eve of his last day in session until September, Swalwell prepared to explain to his constituents his frustrations over Obamacare, which both sides expect to be a contentious topic in town hall meetings across the country this year.

"We've heard from groups on the left and the right, from business and labor about issues on the Affordable Care Act, but that's not what we're voting on. And so it's hard to go back home and say, 'All I've been able to vote on is something that wants to end it,'" he said. "That's frustrating. You get these false choices, and there's a lot more in the middle that I think we could work on."

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"I don't think the American public realizes that. They think you vote on all this stuff, every bill introduced you get to vote on. But the truth is you're kind of set up with these false choices and that's frustrating."

But he's also looking forward to his return and working with his freshmen classmates to find some middle ground.

"You just keep trying," he said. "It takes a snowball to create an avalanche. We came here to be problem-solvers; we didn't come here to throw bombs and divide us further. So we just need to keep trying."

"I'm not naïve," he continued. "It's not going to happen overnight, but I do think there is a spirit, especially among many in the freshman class, that we can get rid of these false choices, the extremes, and try and find real compromise.

"I don't want to be a jaded sophomore."

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