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With some races still uncalled, new members of Congress descend on Washington

Freshman orientation is a chance to hug, hope and watch the votes keep rolling in

Staffers set up a welcome sign for the new member orientation session in the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington on Monday.
Staffers set up a welcome sign for the new member orientation session in the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington on Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

It was all smiles — some awkward, some not — as the incoming freshman class of the 118th Congress gathered for new member orientation in the Capitol Visitor Center on Monday.

This year’s orientation is a return to form, after the pandemic disrupted things in 2020. While the previous class missed out on some social events, this one was feeling the back-to-school vibes.

“It’s kind of like school,” said the youngest future member of Congress, Florida Democrat Maxwell Frost, age 25. “You got a week, got Thanksgiving break, then you got another week.”

Split into two sessions, the new member orientation may be more akin to the first few days at a new job, particularly the kind that hires employees in bunches, like big law or consulting. Freshly “hired” members sit through presentations in a crowded auditorium, interspersed with breaks to grab coffee or a pastry. Outside, two TVs flash pictures of the newcomers with their names and districts — but not their political party. 

Rep.-elects Becca Balint, D-Vt., right, Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., and Delia Ramirez, D-Ill., attend a news conference with newly elected incoming members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus at the AFL-CIO Building in Washington on Sunday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

They trade advice on renting in D.C. — Capitol Hill, if you can afford it, is a good choice, said one — and on local restaurants. (“Have you been to Rasika?” asked another, who’s then told Bombay Club is better.) 

When it’s time for the next event on the agenda, House Administration Committee staffers must herd the members-elect like proverbial cats. 

Even among this crowd of extroverts, some stand out. This year it’s Texas Republican Wesley Hunt, who was only too happy to speak with anyone and everyone in the atrium. Before a scheduled break, Hunt came out to get some coffee, jokingly begging the catering staff to refill the urns faster. “I need this,” he said.

Hunt, a West Point graduate who flew Apache helicopters during the Iraq War, had a constant yet rotating cast of fellow Republicans hovering about him. With his wife by his side, Hunt worked the room like he was still running for something. (The freshman leadership positions will be voted on later.) That gregariousness may be why Texas Republicans reportedly drew the 38th District outside Houston with Hunt in mind, or why he managed to raise $5.5 million in what could have been a purely perfunctory race. 

Of course, we all have our limits. While most of the freshmen retired for a boxed lunch elsewhere in the visitor center, Hunt decamped for the Capitol Market in the House basement with his wife and aides. “It was too busy up there, I decided to get the lay of the land,” Hunt told a reporter, asking why he decided to shell out his own cash for food no better than the free offerings upstairs. 

Rep.-elect Zach Nunn, R-Iowa, center, unloads his luggage at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill as he arrives on Sunday for new member orientation this week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

And not everyone was eager to perform for the press. “I’m just going to the bathroom,” said Rep.-elect Becca Balint of Vermont, sheepishly walking by a few reporters.

Among the most closely watched attendees this week was Adam Frisch, the Democrat from Colorado who is hoping to unseat Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert. While the incumbent had a narrow lead on Monday, the race was too close to call, and her challenger vowed to make the most of orientation.  

Traditionally, candidates in very tight races are invited to attend the nonpartisan training, even if the results are still unclear. Such cases can get awkward, with hopefuls learning the ropes in Washington only to learn they’ve lost their contests. (“It was a miserable experience,” Colorado Democrat Mike Feeley once told CQ Roll Call, recalling his own doomed orientation week in 2002. He knew his chances of winning were slim, so he ducked out of a candlelight tour of the Capitol to attend a Washington Wizards game. “I couldn’t bear it,” said Feeley, now an attorney.)

While the official purpose of orientation is to prepare new members for the rigors of Congress before their terms start on Jan. 3, it’s also a chance to play tourist. 

“Ok y’all I’m freaking out,” tweeted Democratic Rep.-elect Robert Garcia, alongside photos of the members’ reading room in the Library of Congress. The outgoing mayor of Long Beach, California, is a self-described comic book “nerd.” 

Rep.-elect Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., arrives for new member orientation in the Capitol Visitor Center on Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“I can pull any comic book from what is the largest public comic collection in the country and read them here. Let’s go!” he wrote.

Hours later, he hit back against critics in his feed, defending his love of Superman and Spiderman. “For all of you upset that I still read comics and suggesting that I need to do more serious reading……….anyone who understands comics knows that comics are an essential part of American fiction,” he wrote. “It’s serious s––.”

At least one attendee had little use for tourism. Ryan Zinke was back on the Hill on Monday, after just a few years away. The Montana Republican left the House in 2017 to serve as Interior secretary for then-President Donald Trump. Elected once again this November, he showed up at new member orientation, even if he’s not exactly “new.”

CQ Roll Call elections analyst Nathan L. Gonzales contributed to this report.

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