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“Rep. Van Taylor of Plano is not like other Congress members as he works to be ‘Mr. Bipartisan'” – Dallas Morning News

May 21, 2019

WASHINGTON — Freshman Rep. Van Taylor of Plano is without question a conservative Republican. But watching him work the House floor, you might not know it, because he spends much of his time working the other side of the aisle.

That’s not uncommon in Austin, where Taylor served in the state House and Senate for eight years before heading to Congress. In the Legislature, lawmakers in both parties routinely work together.

But in Washington, the two tribes mostly stick to their own kind.

“When you turn on the TV and you see a lot of both extremes — extreme right and extreme left. What you don’t see are the Democrats and Republicans who are working together … who actually like each other,” said Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., a fellow military veteran. “It helps when you have somebody like Van, not only someone you like professionally but someone you like personally.”    

Before entering politics, Taylor served as an officer in the Marine Corps for about 10 years and was deployed to Iraq.

“You did not get to pick who your lieutenants or commanders were,” Taylor said. “You’re not there asking what their political party is or what they believe. You are simply there to do a job.”   

After a failed run for a U.S. House seat in 2006, Taylor won a state House seat in 2010. In 2014, he won a seat in the Texas Senate, where he served four years. Then Sam Johnson, now 88, announced his retirement after nearly three decades in Congress. Taylor coasted to victory in the GOP primary, assuring a win in the heavily Republican Collin County-based district.

In Austin, lawmakers are assigned desks on the floor of each chamber based on seniority, regardless of party. Taylor’s first Democratic deskmate was Beaumont Rep. Joe Deshotel in 2013.  

In the U.S. House, there are no assigned seats or desks, and the center aisle marks a clear border.

Republicans spend their time to the left, looking out from the rostrum, with Democrats mingling among themselves across the aisle.

“The fact that there is a Republican side and a Democrat side on the House floor is something I still can’t quite wrap my head around,” Taylor said about Washington.

On each side, though, freshmen and veterans alike tend to claim favorite spots. Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth, the senior Republican on the powerful Appropriations Committee, sits toward the back of the GOP side with other Texans. Across the aisle, Dallas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson can usually be found in one of the first few rows.

Taylor is all over the place.

One minute he could be talking with Rep. Greg Pence, brother of Vice President Mike Pence, or sitting next to Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a top ally of President Donald Trump.  

The next he could be on the Democratic side talking with Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state about Medicare for All, or New York Rep. Joseph Morelle, a colleague on the Education and Labor Committee.

For Taylor, this is part friendly outreach, part calculation.

He understands to get things done you need to work with both sides, especially for Republicans in the House, with Democrats in control. He makes it a point, he says, to spend half his time on the House floor on the Republican side and the other half with Democrats.

To keep track, he carries a schedule card in his coat pocket. On the back he list bills that he has co-sponsored with names of the authors. He uses that as a reminder, to help spark a conversation.

“If you want to fix Washington, you have to build relationships. It took a lot of time to build the distrust that exists in Washington and it will take time to fix it,” Taylor said. “It’s one handshake, one conversation, one phone call at a time.”

It’s so unconventional, lawmakers are caught off guard.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., was visibly surprised when Taylor came over during evening votes in early April.

House members cast votes on any of the machines distributed around the floor, but most stick to the ones on their party’s side. On any given day, Taylor can be seen casting his votes on legislation on the Democrats’ side, voting in step with fellow Republicans even as he’s chatting up their adversaries.

Airborne diplomacy

Taylor’s outreach isn’t confined to Capitol Hill.

Traveling home to Plano at the end of February, he and Rep. Colin Allred, a fellow freshman from Dallas, ended up on the same plane. Allred, a Democrat, was hoping for an aisle seat but couldn’t get one. Taylor offered his — then promptly took the adjacent middle seat.

In Taylor’s version, Allred seemed a little surprised, and Taylor explained that he was “getting the full Taylor” as they flew back to North Texas.

“Colin and I are working on water issues and road issues. They are important things for our districts,” he said, pointing out that U.S. 75 runs through both of their districts. Allred is also a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Sharing laughs

Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., is one member Taylor spends time with on the House floor talking business or sharing a laugh.

They met during freshman orientation in November and have gotten to know each other better by working on issues related to security and foreign policy. That led to them to introduce two pieces of legislation condemning Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria and South Korea.

Malinowski said that watching Taylor work the floor “inspires” him.   

“In all honesty, it influences me to try and do the same thing and go over to the other side and find common ground,” Malinowski said. “It is something that is sorely needed.”

He’s not the only Democrat who has noticed Taylor’s efforts. Since taking office in January, the Texan has sponsored or co-sponsored 76 pieces of legislation — 48 introduced by Democrats. That’s unusual compared to other Texans.

Allred and Houston Republican Dan Crenshaw, for instance — freshmen with somewhat higher profiles than Taylor — have primarily co-sponsored legislation from members of their own parties.

But there’s no disputing Taylor’s conservative bona fides. He is an anti-abortion Texan who wants to reduce the nation’s growing debt and prevent Washington from over-regulating routine aspects of people’s lives.

Taylor also works out with a group of congressman each morning that includes members of both parties, including Panetta, the two-term Democrat from California.

Taylor served in Iraq. Panetta, son of former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, served in Afghanistan as a Navy reservist. Taylor and Panetta were some of the founding members of the veterans caucus, For Country.

Panetta also served as a deputy district attorney in Monterey County. His father served nine terms in Congress and the congressman said he understands that emotions can get the best of people in Washington.

“Van is a guy that when you talk to him he gets right to the facts. That’s what is important to him,” Panetta said. “I think that’s why he’s willing to talk to anybody, to get to the truth, and that’s what he bases his policies on.”

As Panetta spoke, Taylor interrupted to let him know he had signed on to his veteran affairs bill as the lead Republican co-sponsor. Panetta said that asking Taylor to co-sponsor the bill was an easy choice, because he’ll be prepared to push for it.

Panetta noted the Lone Star pride that Taylor has brought to Washington, often sharing stories about his time in the Legislature.

“You can see that the lessons he learned there he is trying to bring to the United States Congress, not necessarily policy-wise but more mechanic-wise, and the relationships he built there and how things got done there.” Panetta said. “He is trying to implement that here.”

– Matthew Adams, Washington Correspondent

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