WASHINGTON-Newly elected members of 111th Congress arrived in Washington this week, facing a rapid orientation observing the current session vote on plans to salvage the economy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have called a lame duck legislative session of the 110th Congress, hoping to pass a second economic stimulus bill, with a slice of federal money for automakers.
Senate Republicans and President Bush so far are opposed to a plan using part of the $700 billion bailout fund for automakers, which would stall the legislation and make the lame duck session perhaps entirely lame.
The more than 50 freshmen have less important matters on their schedules, as they attend lectures on staff pay, ethics rules, and how to organize their offices. The new faces in both parties had dinner Sunday night with their caucus leaders, and will be competing for committee posts over the next few days. Earlier Sunday, many of the freshman class toured the Capitol and discovered they may need escorts to find their way through the maze of underground tunnels.
"Anyone who is new here can get turned around," said Kyle Anderson, spokesman for the House Administration Committee, which oversees the logistics of orientation.
The main orientation week event is the jockeying for the nicest offices, though freshmen typically get the equivalent of the top bunk: small offices on the top floors of congressional office buildings. Being on the top floor of the buildings means it takes longer for them to dash to the Capitol to vote, and they are further removed from the public eye. A few, though, have great views of the city. President-elect Barack Obama had a freshman office in one of the top floors of the Hart Senate office building, but he'll have to give that up now that he has resigned his Senate seat to take an office offering a little more space at the White House.
Lawmakers get their pick of offices based on a lottery, which in turn is based on seniority. The scramble for a nice office can get competitive, and some staffers get downright rude while scouting out new real estate for their bosses, scanning the drapes and measuring square footage while ignoring the current occupants who may have just lost their jobs in the election.
Generally the ages of freshmen lawmakers are relatively close, but this new class ranges from Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, 66, to Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., 27, who will become the youngest member of Congress.
Veteran Republican lawmakers are also in town for leadership elections for the 111th Congress, which will convene Jan. 3. Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio has said he wants to keep his position as the head of House Republicans, but Rep. Dan Lungren of California announced Friday that he would challenge Boehner for the post. Democratic leadership will remain the same, though some Democrats like Rep. John Dingell, Mich., and Henry Waxman, Calif., are vying for coveted chair positions on committees.