US Rep. Sean Casten joins rest of Illinois delegation watching GOP fight over who becomes next speaker

Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS

As many Americans returned to work Tuesday following the holiday break, U.S. Rep. Sean Casten of Downers Grove was in Washington and joining other Democratic members of Congress waiting to see how Republicans will settle their fight over the House speakership.

It’s a strange moment for Casten. Starting his third term representing Illinois’ 6th District in the west and southwest suburbs, he’s perhaps more politically secure than ever.

The 54.4% of the vote he received in winning the November general election over Republican Keith Pekau is the most he’s gotten in his three general election races, with newly designed boundaries that could set him up for electoral success over the next decade.

But this will be Casten’s first term in Congress with the GOP holding the House majority. That means Democratic goals — and the environmental bills Casten in particular has tried to advance while Democrat Nancy Pelosi was speaker — will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

Casten is in for a new reality in the minority. He’s joined in Washington by Chicago-area Democrats for whom Republicans in charge will be their first taste of Congress. U.S. Rep. Delia Ramirez of Chicago will represent the new 3rd District that stretches from the Northwest Side into the northwest suburbs, while U.S. Rep. Jonathan Jackson is succeeding retiring U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush in the 1st District that winds from the South Side deep into the south suburbs. Rush was first elected in 1992.

While not making headway on the Democratic agenda is a problem for Casten, he told the Tribune in an interview Tuesday that what’s more concerning are the types of Republican representatives who appear to be politically ascendant.

“I think what makes a lot of us anxious is that when we look at so many of the bipartisan bills we passed in the last term, the Republican supporters of those bills, many of them are not coming back,” Casten said. “The ones who are still around who do have a habit of being very bipartisan on that side … they don’t seem to have any political leverage with those who are aspiring to leadership positions in the Republican caucus.”

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For Casten and other Democrats, that means reprioritizing what they hope to get done.

“I think you can find pretty robust bipartisan consensus for (research and development) funding for new technologies” to address climate change, he said. And with rising seas and more extreme weather hitting deep red parts of the nation, Casten said he remains optimistic about legislation to “mitigate the effects of climate change.”

Less likely is across-the-aisle support for legislation that would spur shifts away from coal and other industries that cause lots of carbon emissions that leads to global warming, he said.

Locally, Casten said he plans to stick to what got him elected in the first place, despite the fact Pekau got over 45% of the vote districtwide after Casten blasted him last fall as “a complete coward who was endorsed by a hate organization and doesn’t have the dignity to say it” for Pekau’s support of the Awake Illinois group that opposed drag events in the suburbs that were canceled after threats and vandalism.

“I’ve generally found that if you’re in a public office and you get through an election, I think you have an affirmative obligation to tell people what you believe in, what you stand for, what you’ll fight for,” he said. “And if you win the election, you have an obligation to carry that out.”

In the meantime, though, he’s just waiting for the Republicans to pick a leader so the House can get to work.

“It’s really hard, because from a process perspective there are a whole lot of things that are the speaker’s sole authority,” he said.

jebyrne@chicagotribune.com