Enthusiasm couldn't be higher for El Paso County's two new representatives, Beto O'Rourke and Pete Gallego, as they prepare to go to Washington, D.C., to take the oath of office in January.
Both Democrats had to beat incumbents to win their seats, and they plan to work together to advance a border agenda. But, experts said, as freshmen in the minority party, they shouldn't get their hopes too high.
Instead, O'Rourke and Gallego should set relatively modest goals and try to find Republicans to support them, the experts said.
"It's pretty difficult to be a new congressman in the minority party," said Lee Hamilton, a 17-term congressman who now heads the Center on Congress at Indiana University.
O'Rourke, 37, beat eight-term Democrat Silvestre Reyes in the May primary and then cruised to victory over Republican Barbara Carrasco on Tuesday. His 16th Congressional District consists of El Paso County except for most of the Lower Valley, which belongs to Gallego's 23rd Congressional District.
Gallego, 50, of Alpine, will take office after soundly beating one-term Republican Francisco "Quico" Canseco, who conceded to Gallego on Friday. Geographically one of the largest districts in the United States, the 23rd sprawls east to San Antonio and includes 800 miles of the Texas-Mexico border.
Both congressmen-elect say they know each other, like each other and want to work together. Just days after being elected, they said they hadn't time to put together an agenda.
"We haven't had a lot of chance to talk policy," O'Rourke said.
But their districts' location on the border gives them common ground.
Going back to his days as an El Paso city representative, O'Rourke has decried the long lines of cars, trucks and pedestrians that wait to cross border bridges. Those long lines slow the flow of commerce and cost the region jobs and money.
"There is no greater economic driver for our region than our ports of entry," O'Rourke said. He said there are estimates that 50,000 El Paso jobs depend on cross-border traffic and federal estimates that 11,000 jobs will be lost in the next five years if a way isn't found to move traffic more quickly.
Gallego said he also wants to attack the problem.
"Beto and El Paso are not alone in that," he said. He said ports in Presidio, Eagle Pass, Ciudad Acuña and elsewhere also back up regularly.
Often, the culprit for port delays is too few customs officers staffing them. For example, an audit found that at the Paso Del Norte Bridge, only six of the 11 lanes are usually staffed at peak hours, O'Rourke said.
It might seem relatively easy to increase staffing at the bridges, but until now, most new federal resources for the border have been Border Patrol agents and equipment aimed at stopping illegal crossings.
There might be an opportunity to change that after Tuesday's election.
Hispanic voters made up 10 percent of the national electorate, and they overwhelmingly supported Democrats. Most observers interpreted the results as a repudiation of Republican support for harsh immigration policies.
With the Hispanic slice of the electorate expected to grow rapidly, there appears to be new momentum behind immigration reform -- and border congressmen could play a role.
"Immigration is a natural issue," said Hamilton, who was known as a moderate Democrat who could work with the GOP. "Republicans are stung. They know they need to broaden their appeal."
Gallego and O'Rourke might have an opportunity to make port-of-entry improvements part of immigration legislation, said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.
"Freshman members of the minority party don't get a lot done that their leaders didn't want to do it anyway," Jillson said. But with immigration, "there's a big train moving out and they may be able to get a suitcase on it."
O'Rourke said he plans to sell port improvements to other members of Congress by arguing that better traffic flows mean more jobs elsewhere -- particularly in industrial areas.
Hamilton said that it's crucial that O'Rourke make that case to Republicans.
"You can't do very much without a member of the majority," Hamilton said.
But Jillson said that will be a tough sell -- at least to Texas members of the GOP House caucus. He said there used to be relative harmony until a controversial mid-decade redistricting of the state led by Republican Congressman Tom DeLay cost Democrats Martin Frost and Charlie Stenholm their seats in the House.
"Now there's quite a gulf to be shouted across," Jillson said.
Marty Schladen may be reached at mschladen@...; 546-6127.