WASHINGTON, D.C. (WPRI) - Just two months after people were writing his political obituary, a re-energized David Cicilline got sworn in on Thursday to serve his second term as the representative from Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District.
Cicilline's two nieces joined him on the floor of the House as he took the oath of office. He's still a junior member of the minority Democratic Party; his Capitol Hill office is a cramped space, with some staff separated by a bathroom, but more than 50 friends, family members and supporters crammed inside to celebrate the result of his hard-fought victory over Republican Brendan Doherty.
"It was a really exciting victory," Cicilline told WPRI.com during a half-hour interview in his Capitol Hill office. "Every day I'm here I'm mindful of the privilege I have of serving the people of Rhode Island, and my goal is to demonstrate to everyone - including the people who didn't vote for me - that I deserve the chance to be here."
Cicilline spent almost his entire first term dealing with questions about his stewardship of Providence's finances, forcing him into a tougher-than-expected re-election campaign. With the Providence issue receding and his political future looking secure, Cicilline and his aides are clearly excited to refocus on his work in Congress.
On New Year's Day, Cicilline joined the majority of his fellow Democrats and voted in favor of a compromise bill passed by the Senate to avoid part of the fiscal cliff, which passed the House despite Republican opposition but left some Democrats grumbling that President Obama gave up too much.
A handful of Cicilline's fellow liberal lawmakers voted against the bill because it set the threshold for tax increases at $450,000, not the $250,000 level he and other Democrats had campaigned on. Cicilline said he understood their concerns but believed compromise was necessary. He also said he wanted to secure an extension of unemployment benefits and tax credits for low-income Americans.
While that fiscal fight is behind Congress, another one looms over the next two months with three related events: the mandatory spending cuts under a policy known as sequestration; the expiration of the law funding the government's current operations; and the debt ceiling, a statutory limit on how much the government can borrow.
"To me the real question is, does this [week's bill] strengthen or weaken the president's hand and the Democrats' as we argue in the next phases?" Cicilline said, saying he agrees with the president that the final agreement should include a mix of spending cuts and tax increases.
"It would be a really good idea if we could do them all together and come up with a real plan that deals with these issues in a thoughtful, long-term way, rather than every 60 days or 30 days having one of these crises," he said. "Because in addition to not being a good way to do business ... it breeds such disrespect and lack of confidence in government."
Cicilline also thinks the conservative Republicans in House Speaker John Boehner's caucus may be more inclined to compromise with Democrats during this Congress, particularly if they hear criticism from their constituents.
"I hope they understand that the American people will not tolerate two more years of this kind of divisive partisan brinksmanship that just demonstrates this complete lack of understanding of what's happening in the lives of real people," he said.
Nate Silver, the New York Times political statistics guru, has suggested redistricting may be part of the reason the House rarely reaches easy compromises anymore, because a growing number of lawmakers represent districts that are strongly Republican or strongly Democratic. Cicilline himself was embroiled in a fight over redistricting last year, when Congressman Jim Langevin complained that his allies redrew the 1st District to make it safer.
Cicilline agreed that redistricting is helping to drive up partisanship in the House, but argued the 1st District is less liberal than people think. "The 1st Congressional District, although it's a Democratic district, has lots of residents who are very kind of centrist Democrats," he said. "I'm always sensitive to the perspective and views of people throughout the district."
As a member of the minority party in a chamber that is largely ruled by the majority, Cicilline said he will have four major focuses in his new term: doing case work for his constituents; securing federal aid for Rhode Island in partnership with the rest of the delegation; seeking Republican allies on his major legislative goal of aiding manufacturers; and participating in debates on the House Budget Committee, which he joined this month.
With the first goal in mind, Cicilline said later this year he plans to open two more district offices that will be open one day a week.
Cicilline expressed frustration about Rhode Island's continued economic woes, with the state's unemployment rate still stuck at 10.4% last month, years after stronger recoveries developed elsewhere. "Things are so bad right now in our state - it's such a hard time for people," he said.
Cicilline said part of the state's problem is that its leaders didn't take the same steps to position it for a post-manufacturing era that their counterparts elsewhere did, but he expressed optimism that the state various assets can be used to turn things around. "I think it's finally happening, but frankly we're a decade behind the region," he said. "We'll catch up, because I think people understand now that there's real urgency around this."