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Newcomers Maneuver Through Dizzying Day

When Florida state Sen. Frederica Wilson decided to run for Congress, she hoped that for once, unlike in her home state, she would be in the majority. Not so this year. But as one of only nine new Democrats in the House, Wilson said she’s trying to make the best of it.

“It’s wonderful. It’s almost like a little elite club,” she said, taking a lunch break from new-Member orientation Monday. “We call ourselves the determined nine. And we’re going to work very closely together.”

Rep.-elect David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said this wasn’t the atmosphere he envisioned either. But freshman orientation gives him a chance to make inroads across the aisle.

“We’re just getting to know each other,” he said. “We’re making an effort, as all our colleagues are, to meet the Republicans.”

That’s quite a task. More than 80 Republicans make up this freshman class, and for the most part, the day belonged to them.

The mood was frenetic in the Capitol Visitor Center’s Congressional auditorium, where the almost 100 Representatives-elect spent the day cycling in and out of orientation class after orientation class, lunching and schmoozing with new co-workers and talking to the press.

It was all hugs and smiles as Rep.-elect Tim Scott (S.C.) commended fellow Republican Rep.-elect Renee Ellmers (N.C.) on her note-taking skills.

“You are now officially class secretary,” he joked, though she’s still waiting on the result of a recount in her race against Rep. Bob Etheridge (D).

Scott and Rep.-elect Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), who are both vying for the new freshman leadership position Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) created, chatted between sessions. But Scott insisted there was no time to talk politics.

“We haven’t really started working on a political agenda,” he said. “We’re still going through the mundane, from my perspective.”

That was the consensus opinion on opening day of new-Member orientation. This young, hungry political class streamed into the Capitol over the weekend ready to change the building’s dynamic. But first, they have to learn how to get around the building.

The Monday sessions focused on the basics of how to be a Member of Congress — the administrative aspects, such as setting up offices, Member pay and benefits, and legal issues. Or as Rep.-elect Joe Heck put it, “Welcome to Congress, this is what you’re going to need to know.”

“There’s absolutely no free time,” the Nevada Republican said. “The schedule is so packed that I just look at what it is right before it happens and go.” He said he sent his wife and his campaign manager to look at offices while he sat through orientation so that come Friday’s anticipated room lottery, he can have some choices ready.

It’s all old hat to second-time Rep.-elect Steve Chabot (R). He reclaimed the Ohio seat he lost in 2008 from Steve Driehaus (D), so his 14 years in the House prior to 2008 carry over and count toward seniority. As a result, he was among the first batch of Members to pick offices.

“Now I’m an old energetic new guy,” he said while playing hooky from an orientation panel for sophomore Members.

Rep.-elect Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) did attend that session and said Members-elect were somewhat timid to ask the upperclassmen about minutia such as whether you can drive in the carpool lane by yourself in D.C. (the answer is no, he said).

“The questions were kind of slow coming, and then people got warmed up and they started asking about, you know, flying. And do you buy or rent, or other options that might be out there,” he said. “Basic things that everyone’s had on the back of their mind: Do I live out in the suburbs? And how long does it really take me to get here?”

Palazzo said the ethics session was helpful and carried a simple message: “If you don’t want to show up on the front page of the paper, don’t do it.”

A similar message awaited Senators-elect. A cardboard sign in their orientation room read: “Senators-elect beware. Your office can be sued.”

But the procedure was much more subdued. A few tables in the Mansfield Room hosted a panel of first-term Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Mike Johanns (R-Neb.).

“I said: ‘You can be a person that gets all the national headlines. You can be on every the Sunday morning program there is,’” Johanns said. “If you can’t deliver in the Senate office, none of that’s going to work.’”

The Senators-elect learned about committee organization, hiring qualified staff, prioritizing constituent issues and, of course, how to make sense of the Senate rules.

“It’s just done so differently over here compared to the House,” Sen.-elect and outgoing Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.) said. “But it’s also really a good review as far as various laws, some staffing and various ethics.”

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