Jeff Chiesa had been a U.S. senator for little more than 24 hours when he strode into the chamber to cast his first vote on an immigration bill that ranks as President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority.
Standing in an aisle among his new colleagues, the senator appointed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie got a parade of handshakes, plus some unsolicited counsel, from colleagues on both sides of the contested bill. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a leading proponent, leaned in for a chat, quickly followed by Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the bill’s top foe, offering his advice.
Arizona Senator John McCain, a Republican co-author of the bipartisan bill, later joked that he would do whatever was necessary to get Chiesa to side with him.
“I’m going to subject him to intense interrogation -- I may waterboard the guy,” McCain said. “Or maybe, tell him that he’s either going to support this legislation or hire someone to start his car in the morning.”
It was the start of a crash course for the 47-year-old Republican on the personalities, policies and politics that will shape his brief yet eventful time in Washington. Chiesa’s term of a little more than four months will include votes on immigration and potentially the nation’s debt limit and budget.
In an interview squeezed between briefings and meetings, Chiesa said he took the senators’ lobbying in stride. “Part of it was purely social, and, obviously, there are conversations with members about why they’ve taken the positions they have and why I might want to consider that,” he said.
The courtship of Chiesa is significant, given that the Senate is narrowly led by Democrats, who control 54 seats to Republicans’ 46. Chiesa’s conduct and voting may also influence the 2016 presidential race since his choices will reflect on Christie, who is mentioned as a potential Republican White House candidate. Christie appointed Chiesa to the seat on June 6 following the death of Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg. Christie has called for an October special election to formally fill the slot; Chiesa isn’t running in that race.
Former New Jersey Representative Mike Ferguson, a Chiesa adviser, said his friend is “already being inundated, and will continue to be inundated by folks on a lot of different issues who will want to persuade him to their side.”
“For most of his colleagues in the Senate, he’s kind of a blank slate,” added Ferguson, a Republican, “so they are going to want to meet with him and lobby him.”
That is particularly true on the revision of immigration laws that is being debated and voted on in the Senate now.
During his first week, Chiesa sided with proponents of the measure on two procedural votes to open debate on the bill, which would grant a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants estimated to be residing in the country without authorization.
Yet he also joined most other Republicans, including opponents of the legislation, in supporting a proposal -- which was defeated largely along party lines -- that would have blocked legalization until the government can prove U.S. borders are secure.
Chiesa said he sees border security as a top priority given his law enforcement background, and has yet to decide his stance on citizenship for immigrants without authorization. He was New Jersey’s attorney general until his former law partner, Christie, chose him to temporarily hold the seat.
“My lens is the one that I came most recently from, which is the attorney general’s office,” Chiesa said.
Chiesa has “barely” settled in during his first week, citing an unrelenting schedule of policy and procedural briefings, meetings with senators, and votes on issues he is only just learning.
The Bound Brook, New Jersey, native has bunked with family friends in Washington while his wife and two children stay back home. He’s scoped out the Senate gym, not far from the trailer-like outbuilding housing his temporary office in the courtyard of the Russell Senate Office Building.
And he’s shuttled to the Senate floor to cast votes that sometimes require on-the-job training. His first, a vote on a Democratic amendment to the farm bill to expand broadband service, was called only minutes after he swore his oath of office. He spent several minutes huddling with colleagues and a policy aide before joining Republicans in voting “no.”
“I’ll listen to any member. I understand there are differing viewpoints, and I’m trying to form my own opinions,” Chiesa said. “There’s been no leaning, no pressure, nothing like that.”
At the same time, the learning curve is daunting.
“He is in a challenging situation because he’s here for a very truncated period of time, he’s got no staff to start out with, and he has to immerse himself in some of the most difficult issues that are confronting the country,” said Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
Chiesa also must be mindful that someone else may be held accountable for the decisions that he makes today.
“He was put in place by Christie, who’s trying to get his moderate image up, and it would be unfortunate for Christie if he -- who is seen as his guy -- starts voting in a strictly more conservative way,” said Rebecca Tallent, a former Republican Senate aide who directs the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center’s immigration task force.
“Ultimately he’s going to be seen as a mirror of how Chris Christie would be voting if he was in the United States Senate, and he’s going to be reflective of Christie’s politics and policies,” she said.
Christie has said he supports a “clear path” to “legalization” for undocumented immigrants as part of a comprehensive rewrite of immigration laws.
Some Republican-aligned organizations working to defeat the bill view Chiesa with skepticism. While he’s an unknown quantity, what is known about him -- his close alliance with Christie -- doesn’t indicate he will be on their side, said an operative at one such group who asked not to be identified to discuss legislative strategy.
His new colleagues aren’t being shy in offering advice.
“I encouraged him, based on his prosecutorial experience, to be active in this immigration debate, and that there’d be a number of legal issues that he could contribute to,” said Sessions, himself a former prosecutor who cites a lack of sufficient border enforcement as a central reason for his opposition to the immigration bill. “He brings some valuable experience to this issue.”
Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who is spearheading a proposal to put stricter border security measures in the legislation over the objections of the bill’s authors, said that, while he hasn’t pitched the plan to the newest senator, “He’s on my list.”
Chiesa is also in the sights of the advocacy groups lobbying on the bill.
NumbersUSA, a group opposing the measure, is asking its members in New Jersey to contact Chiesa and his office urging him to reject it, according to Rosemary Jenks, the group’s director of government relations.
Organized labor, which supports the legislation, is mobilizing its members in Chiesa’s state to urge him to sign on.
“We were counting on Senator Lautenberg to be a supporter of this and not somebody we’d have to worry about, and that has obviously changed,” said Jeff Hauser, a Washington-based spokesman for the AFL-CIO.
“Responsible, serious, sober leaders of the Republican Party embrace immigration reform both for policy and political reasons,” Hauser said, “and if Governor Christie wants to be considered one of those national leaders, he needs to make sure that his handpicked U.S. senator is on the right side of this.”
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