Coming off his resounding reelection victory last week, U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin is basking in the limelight as a sophomore member of Congress, with the coattails of a president-elect whom he firmly supported dangling in front of him come the new term.
Mr. Zeldin is reserved about what his support for Donald J. Trump in the election will mean for him as a second-term congressman in the ruling party. He says he is looking forward to some new committee appointments but isn’t positive what they will be yet. He knows what he wants to see at the top of the agendas of the new president and Congress, but he is waiting to see how things shape up. And he says, while touring his home district during the congressional recess for the election, that local issues will be his main focus going forward.
“My top priority, of course, is our district,” the congressman said. “We have a number of Army Corps projects going on … and anything at all that I can do to best deliver results on local needs, that is my highest priority.”
But as Mr. Trump lines up his administration and his much-debated agenda, Mr. Zeldin laid out a laundry list of things he would like, and expects, to see at the front of the line for the new, more conservative order in Washington, D.C.
Border security and the nomination of a conservative Supreme Court justice to restore the right-leaning spirit of the court, as before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, are among the most important first steps, Mr. Zeldin said. On the campaign trail, Mr. Zeldin said he was against the widespread deportation of undocumented immigrants, a crusade that Mr. Trump had he would embark on but which Mr. Zeldin said was not feasible and inadvisable from an economic standpoint. Strengthening the borders, however, is something both men campaigned on.
On other fronts, tax reform and major improvements in the Department of Veterans Affairs are at the top of the list of things Mr. Zeldin, a U.S. Army veteran, would like to see picked up by Congress and the new president early on.
Mr. Zeldin won reelection with nearly 60 percent of the vote in the 1st Congressional District. His opponent, former Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, had sought to capitalize on the outrage of many Americans at Mr. Trump’s candidacy by highlighting Mr. Zeldin’s support for him. The incumbent had, indeed, been one of Mr. Trump’s earliest and most steadfast supporters, though he criticized the presidential candidate for some of his most incendiary and distasteful statements and split with him on several key policy issues, like Mr. Trump’s call for widespread deportation efforts.
Mr. Zeldin turned out to be the one on the right side of the district electorate. Mr. Trump was the top vote-getter in the presidential race among voters in the 1st Congressional District—which includes the five East End towns, plus Brookhaven Town, Islip Town and parts of Smithtown Town.
Support for the Democrats was stronger on the South Fork. Hillary Clinton was the top vote-getter in both East Hampton and Southampton towns, but Mr. Zeldin won Southampton by about 4 percentage points, though he lost Democratically dominated East Hampton to Ms. Throne-Holst by a fairly broad margin.
Unlike in the rest of Suffolk County, and the country, voter turnout overall in the two South Fork towns was higher than in both the 2008 and 2012 elections. Suffolk County as a whole saw higher overall turnout in the presidential race than in 2012 but lower than in 2008. Mr. Trump won Suffolk County by more than 8 percentage points, whereas President Barack Obama had won it, quite handily, in each of the last two elections.
That support is not lost on Mr. Zeldin as he looks toward the new makeup of Washington. Polls showed that 1st District voters were broadly critical of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and Mr. Zeldin said he sees it being one of the top items on the new president’s, and Congress’s, agenda in the new term.
The pledge to “repeal and replace” Obamacare was one leg of Mr. Trump’s campaign platform, and with a Republican-controlled House and Senate that has already passed bills to repeal the legislation but could not override a presidential veto, Mr. Zeldin said change is almost certainly in the offing. The extent of that change, and how convulsively it may come, is buried in the weeds of Washington. To start, “repeal” may not actually mean repeal but rather just changes to law.
“There are aspects of Obamacare that both Republicans in Congress and the president-elect have said they support keeping,” Mr. Zeldin said, pointing to provisions of the bill that protect citizens from being denied coverage by health insurers because they have pre-existing conditions. “So there are a number of possible replacement strategies. And all of them follow this approach of phasing in changes to ensure there is as little disruption as possible.”
Democrats and supporters of the ACA have noted that more than 22 million more Americans have gotten health care insurance since the bill was implemented in 2013. Mr. Zeldin said that any move to repeal or rewrite the bill will be done in a way intended to limit the number of people who will return to an uninsured situation if they don’t want to.
During the campaign he advocated for new laws that would allow workers to set aside earnings before taxes, to cover health insurance costs, as one way of helping Americans absorb the endlessly rising price of health insurance and allowing businesses to pool policies to level off costs.
As for his own role in Washington in the coming two years, Mr. Zeldin said he looks forward to being appointed to additional committees. During the last term he served on three: Foreign Affairs, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Veterans Affairs. He said it was likely he would remain on at least some of those.
“I wish I could serve on eight committees,” he said. “If you’re rewriting the tax code, it’s a great time to be on the Ways and Means Committee. If you’re rewriting Obamacare, it’s a great time to be on the Energy and Commerce Committee. There’s just so much great substance in the jurisdiction of all these committees.”