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New Minn. congressional Dems see hope for cooperation in divided government

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Congress begins its new session Thursday with Democrats newly in control of the U.S. House. Five of Minnesota's eight-member House delegation will be new faces.

Three of those new members are Democrats and two are Republicans. 

As for the Democrats, even though they strongly oppose President Donald Trump on a variety of issues, each new member also says they are seeking out issues where they think they can work with Trump.

Here's a look at the new Minnesota Democrats in the House and what they're saying as they take office:

Ilhan Omar

Ilhan Omar
Ilhan Omar
Susan Walsh | AP

One of the new Democrats from Minnesota already has an international following. 

Ilhan Omar came to the United States as a Somali refugee and attracted a lot attention when she became the first Somali-American member of the Minnesota Legislature two years ago. There's even more attention on her as she heads to Congress.

"I am America's hope and the president's nightmare," she said on Comedy Central's The Daily Show last month.

A nightmare, Omar told MPR News, because she is a hijab-wearing, brown Muslim woman and a refugee from an area of the world Trump has disparaged who now has a seat at the table in the nation's Capital. 

Omar will represent Minnesota's 5th District, which fellow Democrat Keith Ellison left for his successful bid for Minnesota attorney general. 

She will also be a leader of the House Progressive Caucus, to which nearly one in four members will belong. Omar said liberals will use the voting block to make sure Washington Democrats address issues voters want tackled.

"We hope to be very influential. Most of the progressive policies that we are advocating for have bipartisan support from the American people," she said. "So, when we're looking at sensible gun laws, that is overwhelmingly supported by most Americans. When we're looking at Medicare for all, that's overwhelmingly supported by most Americans."

Angie Craig gives a speech after defeating Jason Lewis.
Angie Craig
Ellen Schmidt for MPR News

Angie Craig

Also making history with her election to Congress is Democrat Angie Craig, the first openly gay member of a Minnesota congressional delegation. It's remarkable, she said, that her sexuality wasn't a campaign issue.

"The fact that it's such a non-issue and was such as non-issue in my race is probably a sign that at least here in Minnesota, this country is moving forward."

Craig defeated first-term Republican Rep. Jason Lewis in Minnesota's 2nd District.  

Although Republicans retain control of the Senate and White House, Craig said she's optimistic that lawmakers from both parties will be able to make progress on issues including transportation and broadband access. She noted that Trump likes to make deals and that he might be able to bring together House Democrats and Senate Republicans in some areas.

"The president has expressed interest in infrastructure," she said. "We have talked to a number (of) our district city leaders who are Republican and Democrat and independent and everyone knows we have not been investing in this county in the way we should be."

Dean Phillips delivers a victory speech to a crowd.
Dean Phillips
Liam James Doyle for MPR News

Dean Phillips

DFLer Dean Phillips won in Minnesota's 3rd District, which Republican Erik Paulsen has represented for a decade. Phillips and Omar agree with Craig that infrastructure is ripe for investment. 

And while all three say they want to wait for the results of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's inquiry before making any moves to impeach Trump, Phillips has a sense that Congress is about to change in a bipartisan rebuke to Trump's style of leadership.

"I'd like to think we as a country have hit rock-bottom relative to our political discourse. I think the 2016 election may have been a wake-up call to thoughtful people on both sides of the aisle that we must do better," he said. "And my sense of the freshman class of the U.S. House is a lot of people decided to run for Congress for that very reason."

Long-time congressional scholar and Minnesota native Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute is skeptical that bipartisanship is on the horizon. 

Instead, he said, look for an entrenched battle between the Republican White House and the new Democratic majority in the House.

"We know that the agenda for investigations and for oversight over government agencies' wrong doing, malfeasance [and] ineptitude are going to be all over the House of Representatives," he said. "Legislating? Not so much."