WASHINGTON (AP) — The bright-eyed class of incoming members of Congress descended on Washington Tuesday for schooling on the nuts and bolts underpinning a job like none other. But even as they chose curtain colors and sorted party invitations, the freshmen who vowed to change Washington were getting an old-school education on political pressure from the veteran lawmakers who want to lead them.
“I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on,” said Rep.-elect Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., a former member of the state legislature. “We’re the small fish in a very big pond right now.”
Welcomed to Washington by tight security and a round of power receptions, the new members of Congress are a younger, more diverse group. The freshman class includes a record number of women who drove the most powerful Democratic sweep of the House since the Watergate election of 1974. Democrats picked up at least 32 seats, with several races still undecided.
In a notable generational handover Tuesday, a grinning Rep. Sander Levin, 87, dropped off his newly-elected son, Andy, 58, at a hotel near the Capitol where the freshmen are staying and attending orientation. As the retiring Michigan lawmaker drove away, the younger Levin — who will serve in his father’s seat — headed inside pulling a rollaway suitcase behind him.
There were other signs of change. The most famous of the freshmen, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, posted a photo of the cover of the New Yorker magazine, which depicts incoming lawmakers of color pushing into a colorless room full of men with the caption: “Knock knock.”
But Ocasio-Cortez, at 29 the youngest woman ever elected to the House, wasn’t just active on social media. She stopped by a protest in the office of the senior-most Democratic House veteran, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who permitted the demonstration by 200 or so activists. Pelosi has pledged to reinstate a special committee on climate change.
Pelosi also expects Democrats to elect her speaker, second in line to the presidency, for the second time. Ocasio-Cortez has not said whether she’ll vote for the California Democrat. Others, such as Rep.-elect Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, have said they will oppose Pelosi.
But still other freshmen lawmakers have fallen in line. They’re under pressure from a parade of powerful, moneyed interest groups such as NARAL and the AFL-CIO that support Pelosi and could be helpful — or not — in re-election bids that effectively have already begun.
“I think there’s tremendous value in experience and knowing how to move legislation and knowing every trick possible,” Rep.-elect Veronica Escobar, for whom Pelosi campaigned, said in an interview. She’s supporting Pelosi, she said, but there should be “a leadership pipeline” to carry younger faces into the House’s highest ranks.
“Without her, major pieces of legislation would have never gotten passed,” such as the Affordable Care Act, said incoming Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M. “She’s ready to lead and so I’m going to support her.”
Their majority gone, Republicans had their own leadership race between Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.
“I have not made a decision yet,” said Rep.-elect Dan Meuser, R-Pa. “We’ll see over the next couple of days.”
Checked-in, the freshmen of both parties toured Capitol Hill in the afternoon as the sitting Congress battled over President Donald Trump’s border wall, which could spark a partial federal government shutdown in weeks. Newly emboldened Democrats, meanwhile, are pushing to protect special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
For many newcomers, it’s a scramble to stand up offices in Washington and back home in their districts, which each represent more than 700,000 people. Every office has a budget. And every freshman who doesn’t already have a home in pricey Washington will have to figure out how to rent an apartment, or maybe just keep a rollaway bed in the office, on a $174,000 salary.
First things first, and not all of them are glamorous.
Awaiting the newcomers in the basement of a House office building is a sign on a wall pointing the way to the “Office Setup Briefing.” It directs them to a walled-off room next to the cafeteria, where there were numbered stations to sit and view curtain samples in a choice of shades, as well as a booklet called the “Standard Furniture Catalog,” from which to select styles for their offices.
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