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Debt Ceiling Looms Large for New Lawmakers

New members might find it difficult adjusting to becoming part of the rank and file, especially in light of mounting legislative work

Many new members approached their swearing-in day with giddiness and a sense of awe, but for the 95 new senators and representatives, the honeymoon is likely to be short.

The final act of the 112th Congress — a last-minute deal to avert tax hikes on most Americans — only set up trickier budget decisions for the 113th to tackle. Though the tax question is largely settled, new members will almost immediately have to grapple with how to deal with automatic spending cuts now set to begin in March, the urgent need for another debt limit increase and a spending bill to keep the government from shutting down.

But perhaps sensing the coming political perils, many incoming members argued like pros Thursday that they’d deal with it some other time.

“Today is our day of celebration and warm feelings, and I’m going to keep it that way, but I’m sure that everybody understands that we have to do something and that there will have to be some compromises,” said Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., who is returning to Congress after being ousted in 2010. “I have been very firm about, I’m not taking Social Security and Medicare benefits away from people who earned them and rely on them.”

Shea-Porter isn’t totally new to the game, having served two terms previously. However, the transition from full-fledged campaign to congressional gridlock could prove difficult for many, particularly members used to making big decisions on the trail or in their past political positions.

New Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, and Tim Kaine, D-Va., served as governors of their states. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., helped shepherd the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau into existence, and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has already been state attorney general.

But now, instead of having executive powers, each is just one of many freshmen who will have to fall in line with leadership in order to build up clout to make a difference later on, even if that means less involvement on the biggest issue of the day: the budget.

There was perhaps no greater symbol of this than the presence of former Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., on the floor Thursday as he watched new members get sworn into the elite fraternity that is the Senate. Bayh, a former governor himself, retired in 2010 because he said he was frustrated with Congress and missed making his own decisions that had a direct effect on policy or the economy.

Of course, not every member will end up in Bayh’s mold, but successful state-based politicians often find the national stage more frustrating.

Kaine went right to his former life in explaining what he would bring to the current fiscal policy debates in Congress: “the experience of a governor, I had to shrink a budget without shredding the safety net or hurting the economy.”

“Procedurally, we haven’t focused on it yet,” he said about the upcoming budget votes. “There are just hard decisions to be made, and I made a lot of them as a mayor and a governor. And I’ve got a really great staff on budget issues.”

The transition to being rank and file, intensified by the seriousness of the looming votes, is not unique to the Senate. On the House side, especially in the Republican caucus, where leaders have had difficulty corralling votes, much is to be learned in the coming weeks.

Freshman Rep. Paul Cook, R-Calif., vowed to scrutinize any budget deals but didn’t tip his hand on whether he would join the ranks of hard sells in the caucus of Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio.

“Well, what I’m going to do — and I do this with everything — I’m one of those anal people that have to read all the background, everything like that, before I make an informed choice,” Cook said. “I spent too long in Sacramento, local government, you’ve got to always do your homework and check everything. You’re probably going to accuse me of having highlighters, and underscoring and underlining — I’m just a dumb Marine that’s got to surf through the thing and make sure I do it.”

Lawmakers likely will have to vote on the debt limit by February to avert default and by March to avoid government shutdown. Surf’s up, 113th Congress.

Jonathan Strong contributed to this report.

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