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Joe Cunningham talks Pelosi, offshore drilling, and priorities ahead of his first term in Congress

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Rep.-elect Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., carries his son Boone as he arrives for orientation for new members of Congress, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Washington.  AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Joe Cunningham said he does not fear political backlash during his first term in Congress for his decision to publicly oppose U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi's bid for speaker.

"My signature on that letter doesn't come as a surprise to her because I've told her the same thing," Cunningham said, shrugging his shoulders after referring to a letter he signed with 15 other members of Congress last week. 

After his surprise election this month for the Lowcountry's 1st District seat, Cunningham said Pelosi reached out to him by phone. He said they also met one on one when Cunningham traveled to Washington for congressional orientation last week as the Democrats prepared to assume a majority in the House for the first time in eight years.

"It was just like any other conversation really," said Cunningham, who described Pelosi as gracious. "It wasn't really uncomfortable at all, and I told her I looked forward to working with whoever the leader may be, but I've said where I stood and stand where I said I would."

U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, the Ohio Democrat who had been seen as a possible Pelosi challenger, announced Tuesday that she would endorse Pelosi for speaker. No alternatives to the California Democrat have emerged, and Cunningham could not produce any names he'd specifically like to see challenge Pelosi.

Instead, Cunningham offered descriptors of the type of Democrat he'd like to see emerge as an alternative.

"Hopefully it will be somebody with a strong, independent voice who can talk to people in red districts, and who can work across the aisle," said Cunningham as his dog, Teddy, a wiry-haired mutt, ran around the mostly empty Mount Pleasant campaign office. "A short list or a low supply of potential candidates is not the problem."

His opposition of Pelosi also hasn't put a damper on his political aspirations for his first term in Washington. 

Cunningham said he would like to become a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, along with any subcommittees that "touch the port" of Charleston. Cunningham also said he'd like to join two powerful House committees that control spending: Appropriations and Ways and Means.

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U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, South Carolina's only other Democrat on Capitol Hill, confirmed Cunningham has expressed this interest to him. Clyburn is expected to keep his spot as the third most powerful Democrat. He's running unopposed to become House majority whip.

"I always advise people to make sure you put in your first letter to express not only what you would like to get but what you expect to get," the Columbia Democrat said. "But if perchance that (assignment) is not possible, it may be possible for him in his second term."

Already, Cunningham said he has been working on a bill to bring back the ban on offshore drilling off the Atlantic coast.

And after Volvo ditched plans to ship South Carolina-made S60 sedans from Charleston to China because of new tariffs, Cunningham plans to introduce a bill to roll back tariffs put in place since President Donald Trump took office two years ago. Mark Sanford, a Republican who held the 1st District seat until his defeat in the GOP primary this year, has backed a similar bill.

But there's also housekeeping. Cunningham pointed to a stack of resumes that his team still has to go through as they seek to staff their congressional offices in Washington and determine the office locations they'd like to set up in the district.

He's been returning phone calls after his win, including former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden; U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston; incoming U.S. Rep. William Timmons, R-Greenville; and Republican South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster.

Cunningham is sitting down with his family determining what their living arrangements will look like when he heads to Washington. Cunningham, his wife, Amanda, and their 9-month-old son Boone are currently renting in West Ashley.

"Just like any other family, we're going to look at finances," Cunningham said. "We just have to live within our means and if that means I have to sleep in my office for a few weeks, so be it."

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

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