MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Last night, President Trump stood for the first time in a House controlled by Democrats and touted his record. He boasted about a strong economy, and he warned Democrats not to get in the way.
(SOUNDBITE OF 2019 STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: An economic miracle is taking place in the United States. And the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations.
KELLY: But members on a key committee already ramping up investigations are primed for a fight, as NPR's Kelsey Snell reports.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Democrats campaigned on a promise to use their power to hold President Trump and his administration accountable. Now they have to follow through, and much of that pressure falls on Congressman Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
ELIJAH CUMMINGS: Two hundred years from now, our people will look back on this time and ask the question, when you saw what this president was doing, what did you do? Did you just stand by and do nothing?
SNELL: Cummings says it's a question he has posed to every member who has joined his committee. And it's an unusual group. Leaders paired long-serving pragmatists like Cummings with fiery freshmen like Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, two of the progressive members who helped turn impeachment into a rallying cry during the campaign. So far, there's been some early agreement that they need to pursue deliberate oversight as their main objective. But Ocasio-Cortez says that doesn't mean she's going to shrink into the background.
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: It's not our fault if the administration did embarrassing things. And it's not our job to try to paper over that.
SNELL: Cummings has a tough line to walk. Progressive activists are putting huge pressure on Democrats to get aggressive with Trump. They don't just want a carefully written report. They want to see Trump officials subpoenaed and forced to publicly address allegations of wrongdoing on everything, from ways Trump's businesses profit from his presidency to citizenship questions on the upcoming census. But Cummings says the only way to convince skeptics that his investigations are more than just a partisan fishing expedition is to take a fact-driven, even-handed approach.
CUMMINGS: I want to take us not to common ground - that's not good enough - I'm trying to take us to higher ground.
SNELL: The task is made even harder in a committee with a recent reputation as a political battleground. The last several GOP chairmen, including Darrell Issa and Jason Chaffetz, turned oversight hearings into televised shouting matches. They ignored Democrats and led partisan dives into the IRS scandal and the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. Committee veterans like Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly say Democrats have to resist the urge to perpetuate the drama and opt instead to rise above it.
GERRY CONNOLLY: Anyone can kind of grab a headline or maybe be quoted in a story, but is it backed up by serious and empirical research?
SNELL: But oversight, more than any other panel in the House, is stacked with media-savvy members from both parties, people like Ocasio-Cortez and conservative Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows, one of the president's most ardent defenders. And Meadows is prepared for a fight over what he expects Democrats have in store.
MARK MEADOWS: I'm all for proper oversight, but that's different than full-blown investigations and going after things when there is not even probable cause.
SNELL: Asked if he thinks the early hearings show a possibility that the two sides can agree on any investigative outcomes, Meadows was blunt.
MEADOWS: Makes it impossible.
SNELL: And Ocasio-Cortez says she agrees. It's important for the committee to be taken seriously, but she also says her voters expect that she won't hold back.
OCASIO-CORTEZ: They want accountability, and they sent me here to be aggressive to get it.
SNELL: It will be up to Cummings to overcome that divide if he wants the committee to be more than a partisan sideshow. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.