STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Democratic control of the House of Representatives gives the party a chance to set the national agenda - a chance; not a guarantee. The Democrats' first four weeks were consumed by a high-stakes shutdown standoff with President Trump that is not quite over yet. They've tried to catch up, though, ahead of President Trump's prime-time State of the Union address tomorrow night. NPR's Kelsey Snell reports.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: The Democrats came into power in the House with a long list of plans. They wanted to kick off the year by overhauling campaign and ethics rules before launching bills on everything from health care and prescription drugs to building better roads and bridges. Instead, their earliest days in office have been defined by President Trump.
DAVID CICILLINE: There's no question. The government shutdown, you know, consumed everyone's attention. The president, I think, did that purposely.
SNELL: That's Congressman David Cicilline. He leads a team of Democrats tasked with setting up policy and messaging priorities for the House. Up until last week, those plans were on pause. Committees couldn't form, legislation stalled and their whole message was about ending the shutdown. Now that it's over, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer says it's up to Democrats to make up for lost time. And he promises anxious members, we'll have a chance to do it soon.
STENY HOYER: There's this frustration about focusing on the negative aspect of shutting down the government of the United States of America. But I think they're going to feel a lot better four months from now because I think we're going to have dealt with a lot of very substantive issues that we talked about in the campaign.
SNELL: Hoyer says committees are getting ready to take up plans to lower the cost of prescription drugs and move bills to retrain workers and get more people good paying jobs. Democrats have higher-than-usual approval ratings after the shutdown, and polls show a majority of voters sided with Democrats in that fight. Members like progressive caucus co-chair Pramila Jayapal say that gives Democrats a powerful platform.
PRAMILA JAYAPAL: We didn't back down on this president, and we showed that we will hold him accountable. That got us enormous credibility with the American public.
SNELL: But that may not be helpful for many of the more moderate Democrats who won tough races in previously Republican districts on promises to overcome gridlock. That's why losing the early weeks of legislating has been particularly frustrating for a lot of freshmen. They wanted a head start before the State of the Union where Trump will set his own agenda. And their class co-chair Colin Allred says his fellow newbies are itching to show their constituents that they can deliver on their campaign promises.
COLIN ALLRED: We are, at its outset, delivering to a majority. And we are the class that, I think, in many ways, is closest to kind of the people. And so we want to make sure that folks who've been here are aware of what our parties are.
SNELL: Specifically, Allred says Democrats want to protect pre-existing conditions, the defining issue that helped them win this new majority.
ALLRED: Those are things that no matter where you are on the spectrum, you have a common denominator of agreement. And then we'll probably have some discussions on the things that are a little bit different.
SNELL: More complicated areas like how far left to go on Medicare for all will wait. The slow start is beginning to pick up. Democrats held their first hearings and reintroduced legislation to close the gender pay gap. More experienced hands like Hoyer and Jayapal also want to remind members that there's still lots of time before the 2020 election.
JAYAPAL: You know, we're in January. (Laughter) I mean, we're not in June. You know, if this is still the case in June, that would be a - that would obviously be a problem.
SNELL: Vulnerable Democrats are hoping she's right because by June, their next campaign could already be underway. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, the Capitol.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE HAGGIS HORNS' "CURSE OF THE HAGGIS")