WASHINGTON – While the 107th Congress is still limping its way through a lame-duck session, newly elected members of the 108th Congress were in town Tuesday to attend orientation.
And they are finding that there is much to learn.
"It's very much like being a freshman in high school, where you have to learn where the elevators are — perhaps even the restrooms," said Katherine Harris, R-Fla.
Harris is perhaps best known as Florida's secretary of state during the 2000 presidential election. But now, she is just one of 56 new members of the House who will take office next year. She's fine with that.
"I don't particularly relish the spotlight whatsoever so I'm looking forward to being with my class," she said.
The class is made up of some newcomers to politics as well as some political siblings. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., joins her sister, four-term Rep. Loretta Sanchez, as the first sister act on the Hill. Mario Diaz-Balart will represent Florida along with his fellow Republican brother Lincoln, who is entering his sixth term.
Kendrick Meek, a Democrat from Florida, takes over the seat held for 10 years by his mother, Carrie Meek.
Orientation for the Senate's 10 new members is scheduled for December, and should require a lot less instruction.
Of the 10, four served in the House. Two senators — Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. — are former Cabinet secretaries. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., is returning for a second stint as senator and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., is the son of former Sen. David Pryor. Only two, Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, will be new to the Washington experience.
The freshmen will quickly learn that Capitol Hill is full of quirky customs and practices, and it could take a lifetime to become as skilled as Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the dean of the Senate and its constitutional conscious. Byrd has been in his Senate seat for 44 years and still has four years left in his term.
Among the lessons learned: When Congress is in session, buzzers constantly go off throughout the buildings to signal action on the floor. To a new recruit, learning how many buzzes stand for which action can get a little tricky.
"I don't know if I will ever learn them today. I probably will, but thankfully they give us pagers now and they tell us on the pager what is actually happening," said Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., who is replacing one of the best-known House members, his mentor Rep. Gary Condit.
Luckily, the new members have some help. Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Administration Committee, and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the ranking member, are serving as congressional guidance counselors.
"We have a pretty smart crew. I think they've already found most of the necessary facilities in the buildings," Ney said. "We want to give them all the help, no matter how famous or non-famous [they are] right now, to make sure they run their offices correctly."
Ney said that means teaching the new members not just where to go, but how to hire staffs, keep family happy, comply with ethics standards, and follow security procedures that have become much more critical since Sept. 11 and the subsequent anthrax mailings to Congress.
Each member will get about $1 million to run their offices and a few perks, including a cell phone, a lap top and a Blackberry two-way pager.
Immediately, the new members may also experience the disappointment of not getting the plum committee assignments.
Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., may have been an adviser to former President Bill Clinton, but he is still an unknown to the Capitol Police. He was stopped and questioned when he was found roaming the halls without his pass.
But he is learning the ropes very quickly.
"The first advice is not to be stopped by a Fox reporter while you're on your way to a meeting. Just go right to that meeting, blow right past that Fox reporter. After that, everything else flows pretty well," Emanuel said.
Only 435 members serve in Congress at one time — roughly one-tenth the number of journalists with credentials to cover Capitol Hill — so members-elect do get a primer in learning how to deal with the national press — it probably reads: You can run, but you can't hide.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.