WASHINGTON – Some 60 new faces, the freshman class of the next Congress, converged on the Capitol Monday to catch a glimpse of the final moments of the current Congress, bickering to the bitter end.
The 50-odd freshmen in the House, and eight in the Senate, were in Washington for sessions on the minutiae of being a member of Congress — how to hire a staff and set up an office, how to conform to ethics rules and what to do in a security situation.
They will also get to vote on the new leadership, and the people who will head committees when the new Congress convenes and is sworn in during early January.
There was one very familiar face: Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who has been battling brain cancer. He said it was "good to be back" and promised to lay the groundwork for early action next year on health care reform — his signature issue.
People with experience "are trying to keep us from rushing into swinging doors," said Rep-elect Walt Minnick of Idaho, one of at least 32 freshmen Democrats. With several seats still undecided, Republicans will have at least 19 fresh faces in a new Congress, the 111th, where Democrats will enjoy an expanded majority.
Minnick, among those securing a Democratic seat in a traditionally Republican district, joined other freshmen in saying he would try to "break away from the ultra partisanship" of recent sessions.
"We feel that we are coming here to be a statesman," said Brett Guthrie, a newly elected Republican from Kentucky.
But it also appeared the 110th Congress was headed toward a partisan close, with Senate Democrats backing legislation that would direct some of the money in the $700 billion Wall Street bailout to the auto industry, and the White House and Republicans saying help for automakers should not come from the rescue plan.
In the Senate, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid meets Monday with six Democrats who will take seats previously held by Republicans in Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Oregon. Republican leader Mitch McConnell is meeting with future GOP senators Jim Risch of Idaho and Mike Johanns of Nebraska.
The incoming House freshmen are already learning what it is like to be lobbied by their more senior colleagues, with Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who is campaigning for Dingell's chairmanship, both calling and sending letters to the members-to-be.
"I knew both of them and admired both of them," said Rep-elect Dan Maffei, D-N.Y., who previously served in various staff positions on Capitol Hill. "It's a tough vote for all of us," he said of the expected showdown on Thursday.