WASHINGTON — Republican John Curtis of Utah became the newest member of Congress late Monday when he took the oath of office amid an intense push by GOP leadership to score a major legislative victory before the end of the year.
Curtis, 57, was the mayor of the Mormon stronghold of Provo when he won a special election last week to replace former Rep. Jason Chaffetz in a heavily Republican district. He’ll fill the final year of Chaffetz’s term before facing re-election in late 2018. His letter of resignation from the mayor’s post took effect when he was sworn in by Speaker Paul Ryan during a series of votes on the House floor.
In brief remarks on the House floor, Curtis said the voters from Utah’s third congressional district who sent him to Washington “have very high expectations of me and of us.”
Curtis has signalled he intends to be a unifier in a deeply polarized Congress. To do that, he’ll have to find the balance between supporting the head of the Republican Party, President Donald Trump, and distancing himself from controversies surrounding the president.
During his victory speech last week in Provo, Curtis — who has said significant moral concerns kept him from voting for Trump last year — took a different tone than the president. He acknowledged voters are worried about gun violence, the direction of the country and a “lack of civility.”
“We need bridge builders, not bomb throwers,” Curtis said.
He’ll have to quickly learn to navigate a divided Congress aiming to pass a tax overhaul bill and claim a badly needed legislative win. Trump has set a Christmas deadline for the tax legislation. Other looming and contentious issues include immigration legislation and the repeal of former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Chaffetz was known during his eight years on Capitol Hill for his persistent investigations into Democrat Hillary Clinton. Chaffetz resigned at the end of June, citing a desire to spend more time with family. He quickly became a paid Fox News contributor, leaving behind an open seat that initially attracted more than 20 candidates.
Curtis became the GOP nominee after a tough primary where he faced suspicion from the party’s conservative flank for having once been a Democrat. As he prepares to quickly run another campaign next year, he will likely face a strong challenge from the right for the Republican nomination.
The House has 434 members with one vacancy after Republican Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania resigned.