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Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer On What She Wants To Hear During The SOTU

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now let's bring in someone who will be in the room for the State of the Union and who is now in Statuary Hall, freshman Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer. She is the second-youngest woman ever elected to Congress. She just turned 30. She's a Democrat who beat a Tea Party Republican in November to represent an Iowa district that went for Trump two years before.

Congresswoman Finkenauer, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ABBY FINKENAUER: Well, thanks for having me - really happy to be here with you today.

KELLY: What's your expectation for your first State of the Union as a member of Congress? Do you see value in this ritual?

FINKENAUER: I do. You know, I'm ready tonight to be open and hope to hear from the president putting fear and division aside and talking about issues that the American people care about. You know, the folks that I represent in Iowa's 1st District - one of the No. 1 things I heard is they were tired of the chaos and the division of Washington, D.C. So tonight I hope the president puts that aside and talks about issues that show up in a big way for my district and for Americans across the country.

KELLY: I mean, as you probably already know after just a few weeks on Capitol Hill, the devil is always in the details. And the president's supporters say Democrats, your party - that y'all hate Trump even more than you want to get stuff done, that you - that Democrats will try to block him no matter what. So can you get specific with me and point to one issue where you think your party should commit to working with the president?

FINKENAUER: Absolutely, and that's infrastructure. It's something that he talked a lot about while he was campaigning. But we never saw movement on it. You know, the joke was his first two years that every week was supposed to be infrastructure week. Well...

KELLY: And it was a big theme of his...

FINKENAUER: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...State of the Union last year. And there's...

FINKENAUER: It sure was.

KELLY: ...Still no comprehensive bill on the table.

FINKENAUER: No movement, yes. And so...

KELLY: So what changes now with a divided Congress that makes it more likely?

FINKENAUER: Well, you know, I'm happy that I'm actually sitting on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, you know? I know I have Senator Grassley and Senator Ernst representing my state as well. And they hear it as well as I do from our constituents that this is - needs to be a priority. And I am hopeful we can actually work together on these issues and get something done. That is why I was sent here.

KELLY: One other issue to ask you about - the president is certain to bring up his desire for a border wall. Speaker Pelosi - Nancy Pelosi has been careful to say that Democrats could back money for fencing, could back money for barriers but not a wall. What's your red line?

FINKENAUER: Well, I don't know if it's so much a red line as much as it's about taking it seriously. I don't think Democrats or Republicans have gotten immigration correct.

KELLY: Are you prepared to say that both parties, your - the Democratic Party and Republicans should compromise, particularly in an effort to not have another government shutdown starting 10 days from now?

FINKENAUER: Well, in regards to a government shutdown, I mean, never should American workers be used as bargaining chips for policy decisions. One of the hardest phone calls I suppose I've ever had in my five years as a public official was a few weeks ago from a farm service agency worker who's my guest here tonight, calling me, telling me he was getting called back to work without pay and was worried about the folks that he worked with who were trying to figure out how they're going to afford child care without getting a paycheck.

KELLY: So this is your guest. We should mention each member of Congress can bring a guest to the State of the Union. And he's coming in from Iowa.

FINKENAUER: He is. He is. He's excited to be here. And, you know, it was important for me to bring him because I wanted to make sure that he was in the room tonight. And I do hope the president catches his eyes. And I hope that it gets back to them that there are folks sitting in that gallery, ones who were working and care about their communities and were worried about their families, worried about their co-workers because of the fact that they were used as negotiating tools for policy decisions. And again, that should never be done. And I wanted to make sure, again, that Jesse was in this room and heard and seen.

KELLY: That's Abby Finkenauer, freshman Democratic congresswoman from Iowa. Congresswoman Finkenauer, thanks so much for your time.

FINKENAUER: Thank you - really happy to be here. And thanks for all you do.

KELLY: And we will meet freshman Republican Chip Roy elsewhere in the program tonight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.