John Fetterman's picture-taking, buddy-making, convention-breaking first month on Capitol Hill
John Fetterman is the freshman Democratic senator from Pennsylvania.
His arrival in DC has sparked impromptu photo shoots, technological updates and bond-building.
Delegation-mate Sen. Bob Casey told Insider that Fetterman is “off to a great start.”
At 6'8", the mountain of a man that is John Fetterman pretty much stands out in every setting at the US Capitol.
In addition to being the tallest senator in the 118th Congress, the Pennsylvania Democrat holds the distinction of being the only freshman lawmaker to flip a Senate seat during the 2022 midterms — beating Trump-endorsed celebrity candidate Mehmet Oz by nearly 5 points in one of the gnarliest battlegrounds of the cycle.
The pivotal victory helped Senate Democrats finally break the 50-50 split they'd operated under for two years and fully claim majority status. That power shift has produced a divided government now that House Republicans control the other chamber.
While organizational challenges have led to slow starts in the House and Senate, Fetterman — who suffered a stroke in May and developed an auditory-processing disorder that his doctor said may cause him to occasionally "miss" words during the course of a conversation — is getting acclimated to how things work in DC.
Insider spoke to Fetterman's colleagues, his staff, and congressional reporters about the newcomer's first month in Washington, and what to expect from him as Congress gets rolling.
'The bromance is on'
One of the people Fetterman connected with early on is fellow freshman Sen. Peter Welch.
—Senator Peter Welch (@PeterWelch) December 12, 2022
"I enjoyed getting to know Sen. Fetterman during our freshman orientation, and we've had the opportunity to get together a few times since we've settled into our new roles," the Vermont Democrat told Insider of their budding relationship.
Welch noted that in addition to trading home state gear — in December Welch tweeted a photo of Fetterman holding up a giant hoodie with the word "Vermont" stretched across the chest, and said Fetterman has since returned the favor by outfitting him with "some Pittsburgh gear" — the two have started spitballing legislative issues they could tag-team together.
"I know Sen. Fetterman is interested in nutrition, and I share his concerns there, so I look forward to collaborating to get things done for folks in Pennsylvania and Vermont," Welch said. Food issues definitely fall under their purview as newly minted members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.
Fetterman has also hit it off with Pennsylvania's senior Sen. Bob Casey.
—Jan Murphy (@JanMurphy) January 17, 2023
"The bromance is on," a Pennsylvania-based reporter posted online after snapping a pic of the delegation mates clowning around in mid-January.
Others have also sought Fetterman out for self-styled photo ops.
Green New Deal advocate and Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts took a selfie with Fetterman on the first day of the new Congress, captioning the snapshot "Welcome, friend."
And the attraction isn't limited to just Senate folks.
Rep. Maxwell Frost, the newly elected first Gen Z member of Congress, told Insider that he made a point of huddling with Fetterman when he spotted him at the White House reception for new members.
—Maxwell Alejandro Frost (@MaxwellFrostFL) January 25, 2023
"I think he showed that when we stick to our message about what we're for, not what we're against, that we're able to win. Even in battleground states," Frost said just off the House floor.
The Florida Democrat added that he's excited to work with and learn from the "bold progressive."
"I'm a fan of his campaign. And his Twitter posting. And his shitposting," Frost gushed between House votes. "I love it!"
'Off to a great start'
Sen. Casey told Insider that Fetterman has already hit the ground running.
"John's off to a great start," Casey said as he made his way from the Capitol to the Senate office buildings.
The 3-term lawmaker commended Fetterman for scoring some prime committee assignments, including posts on the Environment and Public Works Committee, the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, the Joint Economic Committee, the agriculture panel, and the Casey-led Special Committee on Aging.
"He's got some really important committees for our state," Casey said of the natural overlap between regional challenges and Fetterman's commitment to bolstering union labor, working-class finances, and the environment.
And while they haven't sussed out specific policy goals yet, Casey said "we'll be comparing notes soon."
Fetterman pledged to make the most of his assignments in an official statement, vowing to fight for local farmers, "protect consumers and take on corporate greed," and build on recent infrastructure wins by keeping "our highways, roads, and bridges well-maintained."
While he has yet to draft a bill of his own, Fetterman is putting his stamp on the legislative process in other ways.
He pushed for the passage of a languishing workers' rights bill after the Bureau of Labor Statistics released new data on declining union membership numbers.
Fetterman has also co-sponsored a handful of wide-ranging bills, including the healthcare-related Better Care Better Jobs Act (S. 100) and an anti-workplace surveillance bill (S. 262), both introduced by Sen. Casey; a DC statehood bill (S. 51) introduced by Sen. Carper; the Assault Weapons Ban of 2023 (S. 25) introduced by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California; and a pay raise bill (S. 124) introduced by Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii.
He's also met with supporters on the Hill, welcoming representatives from Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania and the National Association of School Nurses to his office.
Fetterman staff said there's even been international outreach, including a meeting with Ukrainian prosecutor general Andriy Kostin, Ukrainian ambassador to the US Oksana Markarova, and president of the Ukranian Supreme Court Vsevolod Kniaziev.
And on January 23, Fetterman cast his first vote on the Senate floor, helping to clear the way for a Biden administration nominee.
—John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) January 24, 2023
Bridging the communication gap
Senate administrators have hustled to drag the archaic chamber into the 21st century to meet Fetterman's auditory processing needs, Time reported earlier this week.
That technological fine-tuning has included modifications such as installing a "permanent live caption display monitor" at Fetterman's desk on the Senate floor, and a remote setup that he can use at the dais whenever he's tapped to preside over the entire chamber.
"Both wired screens will work without internet if needed, relying on the Senate Office of Captioning Services' stenotype machines, caption encoding hardware, and staff in the Capitol itself," Time wrote of the triple layer of security and immediate transcription specially designed for Fetterman.
The service has already come in handy, aiding Fetterman as he embarked on his debut line of questioning at the Agriculture Committee's February 1 hearing on the 2023 farm bill.
Fetterman stumbled a bit when addressing the witnesses, repeating the word "farm" when he seemingly meant to say family.
But US Department of Agriculture undersecretary Alexis Taylor intuitively picked up what he was going for, opening her response with an anecdote about her own experience with family-owned farms.
Fetterman has, so far, avoided similar missteps while walking the hallways by declining to field the barrage of questions congressional reporters regularly bombard lawmakers with at every turn.
A Fetterman aide, who requested anonymity in order to freely discuss the inner workings of the office, told Insider that staff is working on ways to facilitate on-the-spot interviews.
One solution could be to expand the functionality of the personal iPad Fetterman staffers always have at the ready, a tool the aide said is currently equipped with "some software we found that works with the talk-to-text, so John can read what people are saying." Having reporters jot down their questions, either on paper or via a notepad app, and then holding it so Fetterman can read it himself, is also on the table, as is pulling reporters into less crowded or somewhat quieter locations to help cut out confusion.
"We're just trying to see what works for both sides so there are opportunities for engagement," the aide said. The caveat is that "sometimes he's not going to answer every question, just like every other senator."
That seemed to be the case when a congressional reporter tried to flag down Fetterman late last week.
Insider watched the fellow journalist call Fetterman's name, and then immediately thrust their phone out so he could read the prepared question. Fetterman glanced at the screen for a beat, but then turned his head and walked away without saying a word.
The reporter told Insider the query had been about fracking — which was a major issue in Fetterman's race against Oz and will undoubtedly come up in future Environment Committee hearings.
Other reporters have taken a run at Fetterman over the past few weeks, only to be waved off by his protective staff.
The two camps will have to find some sort of workaround soon.
Especially since, as one incredulous tourist observed, the towering Democrat is simply impossible to ignore.
"We're all just gawking," the astute teenager blurted out to her friends as they turned, in unison, to watch Fetterman stroll through the packed Senate subway.
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