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Rep. Joe Walsh Navigates Day One in Congress

Rep. Joe Walsh has many worries on his first day in Congress. How will the Illinois Republican stay true to his small-government, tea party roots now that he’s in the reviled swamps of Washington? How will he become part of a Republican team when he was an outlier for so long?

But Wednesday morning, his challenge is simply to figure out which hallway and which elevator will take him to the Speaker’s Lobby, where his Congressional pin and voting card await.

Walsh, after all, wasn’t even supposed to be here. He surprised the GOP establishment by knocking off Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) in a tight race into which the national party didn’t contribute a dime.

But against all expectations, here he is, standing in his office in the Cannon House Office Building, his wiry frame practically twitching with intensity. His silvery thatch of hair is standing on end where he has raked his fingers through it.

A staffer hands him written directions to the Speaker’s Lobby (“Hang a right, elevator down … second floor of the Capitol,” he reads softly) before he ventures out into the hallway.

Even though he isn’t entirely sure where he is going, Walsh walks fast. And talks fast. And he makes bold pledges.

Walsh has declared that he won’t take the health or pension benefits offered to Members of Congress. He will serve only three terms. And in what might be the biggest challenge for any Member, he will not vote for any legislation that increases the size of government or that oversteps constitutional authority.

He’s already anticipating the way those kinds of proclamations might create tension within the House Republican Conference. This freshman class must live up to audacious promises, he says. “We said a lot of things in the campaign,” he says. “And I’m not going to back out on it.”

But the tough-talking, hard-line Walsh of the campaign trail didn’t have to play nice with the rest of the GOP. Now he knows he’ll have to be a team player — at least some of the time.

“I’m not out in the wilderness with a bunch of tea party activists yelling at the top of my lungs. I’m in a system now,” he says. “My goals don’t change, but the way I go about it has to be different now. But the beliefs? On those, I will never, never compromise.”

His office for the moment is sparsely decorated, which isn’t surprising since he only got the keys to it Monday. A large American flag hangs over a leather sofa, a few family photos sit on a table, and a quilt hanging on the wall bears quotes from the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Constitution.

A small collection of books shows his eclectic tastes: “Too Big to Fail” by Andrew Ross Sorkin, a Ronald Reagan biography by Dinesh D’Souza, and a slim volume labeled “The Patriot’s Toolbox.” They are bookended by a bottle of Beano sitting atop a copy of Glenn Beck’s “Broke.”

Walsh’s family will arrive soon, including his wife, Helene, four of their five children and a few siblings. So will carloads of his supporters, many tea party activists whose vigorous support fueled his never-saw-it-coming triumph.

But first, he has to get that pin.

In the elevator, he confesses he’s unsure how to get to his destination and happily follows a reporter’s directions. To get past security, he flashes a temporary ID tag issued to Representatives-elect until they become official.

Later, during the swearing-in ceremony, Walsh is a part of the spectacle, and yet somehow, not of it. He sits in the last row of the chamber, flanked by his sons, Patrick, a high school sophomore, and Joe Jr., a recent college graduate. He chats with colleagues who come by to introduce themselves, but he is not among those Members circulating around the chamber like it is a cocktail party.

But when he stands to take the oath of office, he blends into the sea of pinstripes.

After the ceremony, his office is a swarm of people waiting to shake his hand and pose for pictures. His wife mingles, and Walsh’s college-age step-daughter, Ali Weiner, snaps photos. 

Even Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) stops by the reception, popping in long enough to shake hands with the newest member of his home state’s delegation. After he leaves, a Walsh supporter makes a derisive comment about the Democratic leader, and Walsh mimics wiping his hand — apparently joking that his liberalism might be contagious.

By the end of the day, the suite is emptying of people. A plastic tray has been raided of everything but a few sad bits of broccoli and zucchini.

Walsh poses for one last picture, with a group of four couples he calls his “brains,” the early supporters who most helped him win his seat. “These are the eight people who had no idea what they were doing eight months ago,” he says. “What were we thinking?” The group beams.

After final goodbyes, Walsh is off, headed to the Capitol for a photo op with his fellow freshmen. This time, he’s more sure where he’s going. “We’ll take the outside route,” he says. “I don’t think I’m a tunnel guy.”

And when he gets to the Capitol, he subtly turns to show the Capitol Police officer who stops him the gleaming button that marks him as a Member of Congress. The officer nods.

The pin is working.

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