The House of Representatives has 435 members. The two who represent Kern County couldn't be much further apart in the pecking order.
Around midday Friday, Republican Kevin McCarthy was standing over President Trump's right shoulder in a perfectly knotted shamrock-green tie, providing occasionally amusing facial captioning for the president's comments at a Rose Garden news conference. The media session followed a two-hour White House meeting with Democratic leaders to address the partial government shutdown — a meeting that was either “contentious” or “productive," depending on who was doing the talking. McCarthy was going with "productive."
For fully half of the hourlong news conference, focusing in part on Trump's quest for $5 billion in border wall funding, he and the president were the only figures onscreen, at least in the feed provided to NBC affiliates.
"I promise you this," McCarthy, 53, said in brief remarks before Trump turned to the media to take questions. "I will work with anybody who wants to move America forward, secure our border and put this government back open."
At around the same time, 3 miles away, Democrat TJ Cox, 55, was still learning people's names. Having discovered the location of the Longworth Office Building's U.S. post office, ATM and Dunkin' Donuts, Cox — newly elected to serve the Central Valley's 21st Congressional District — was eager to get started on something constructive.
The two representatives couldn't have had more different experiences over the first three days of the 116th Congress.
McCarthy, who almost certainly would have been speaker of the House if Cox and his fellow Democrats hadn't taken 40 seats from congressional Republicans last fall, remains one of the half-dozen most powerful people in Washington, even as minority leader.
Cox, who defeated incumbent Republican David Valadao in a race so close (862 votes) he wasn't able to declare victory until three weeks after Election Day, is not. He is still tying his shoes, so to speak: Three days in, Cox's staff was still attempting to hire a scheduler and activate the phones for his district offices back in Central California.
Cox, who won the seventh of seven targeted GOP-held seats in California, enabling Democrats to begin the new session with a 46-7 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation, is at square one.
But he has the advantage of majority-party status and the satisfaction of seeing two of his top policy priorities rise immediately to the top of the House agenda.
Immigration reform, including protection for DACA recipients, those undocumented residents who were brought to the U.S. as children and know no other home, serves as the backdrop in the current, raging border wall debate.
Health care availability, another priority issue, is also top of mind for House Democrats: Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to whom McCarthy handed the gavel Thursday, is coordinating a legal effort to help defend the Affordable Care Act in a federal court case in Texas that threatens to kill that landmark law.
House Democrats also will seek to reduce drug costs, in part by requiring Medicare to exercise its leverage as the nation’s biggest pharma customer to negotiate lower prices. That's one issue where Democrats may not receive presidential pushback: Trump has criticized drug companies for engaging in anti-competitive practices, and his administration has proposed indexing drug prices to lower overseas prices, among other tacks.
It's hard to say how McCarthy, based in Bakersfield, will guide Republicans on those issues now that former Speaker Paul Ryan, a close ally, has retired from Congress. Ryan had successfully prevented many health care reform bills from coming to the floor for a vote, and he limited the debate on immigration.
We'll know soon; McCarthy, who defeated Democratic challenger Tatiana Matta by 56,452 votes (which for him qualifies as close) to remain the representative for California's 23rd Congressional District, should be no less a fixture on the Sunday-morning political shows than he was as majority leader. With the opposition party holding down the speakership and Ryan gone, possibly more so.
Cox still harbors illusions of cross-aisle cooperation, and thank goodness for that. In a Saturday morning phone call from Williamsburg, Va., where he and his family (his wife and four children are with him this week) are attending a bipartisan retreat, Cox spoke of a "fantastic" recent conversation with a Republican congressman from the east who sits on a committee that deals with water issues. He wanted Cox's thoughts on water as a West Coaster with constituents in farming.
Cox, whose base is Fresno, must still find a place to live for the one long weekend each month he'll be in Washington, and he sees even that task as an opportunity to grow.
"I'm sorting that out now," Cox said. "I might want to live with members from the other party or another area of the country so you cross-pollinate."
Cox's interaction with McCarthy will be minimal, if even existent. Even Republican Valadao, whose office — 1728 Longworth — Cox now occupies, did not often run in the same crowds as the then-majority leader.
Here's hoping McCarthy and Cox — eventually, somehow — end up on the same side of a vote to end this shutdown, which has idled 800,000 federal employees, including 144,000 in California, and wreaked havoc with national parks, nutritional assistance programs and, ironically, immigration processing services.
"TSA agents that you're talking to at the airport are saying, 'Hey, I'm not going to be able to make rent,'" Cox said.
At least Cox and McCarthy should be able to agree, in principle, with the gist of Cox's first press statement as a congressman, issued Thursday:
“We need a working Department of Agriculture," Cox wrote, "to ensure that our farmers have access to financing, small businesses in need of SBA loans (can move forward), and federal employees who want to return to work (may do so)."
Here's hoping they agree on other matters of importance to the Central Valley as well. Eventually, somehow.