WASHINGTON – A day before, they were mayors, farmers, doctors and teachers. On Tuesday, they were the 65 newest members of Congress, already approving the spending of billions of dollars and witnessing the House and Senate at their most contentious and arcane.
"This is my first day and it's a little overwhelming," said Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Fla., who as Florida's secretary of state gained national notice for her role in the battle over her state's contested electoral votes in the 2000 presidential election. "I have so much to learn."
And so little time.
"As we saw today we have work to do, not next week but now," said New Hampshire's new Republican senator, John Sununu, a former House member.
Within minutes of being sworn in, the 11 new senators -- nine Republicans and two Democrats -- saw Democrats block a $7 billion jobless assistance package that both parties say is desperately needed by the nation's unemployed. Two hours later, after voicing their objections to what they said was the inadequacy of the package, Democrats agreed to approve the bill without a vote.
The House got off to an equally raucous start, with Democratic leaders, protesting a GOP-written package of rules for running the new Congress, accusing Republicans of running the House like a "Politburo."
"We've got to do a little less bickering and a little more problem-solving," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., mayor of St. Paul from 1993 to 2001.
Ending the political bickering is a common theme among freshman. "Observing Congress from 5,000 miles away there seems to be a tremendous amount of posturing in both parties," said Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, an attorney who served in the state legislature.
Case, appearing at a meeting of his fellow House Democrats wearing a lei, had to win twice to get to Washington, first in a race to finish out the remaining weeks of the term of Rep. Patsy Mink, who died just before the November election, and then in a special election for the new session of Congress. He officially learned only Sunday that he was a member of Congress.
"I'm going to have to get way in deep with the issues immediately," he said.
Case is one of 21 Democrats and 33 Republicans elected to a first term in the House. Besides the usual lawyers and state-level politicians, among the listed former or current occupations are farmer, furniture store owner, boat salesman, paper mill worker and state trooper. The career of Jeb Bradley, R-N.H., most recently a member of the New Hampshire legislature, includes natural food store owner and magician.
The Senate freshmen have stronger links to Washington: four are moving over from the House, Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., is coming back after serving in the Senate from 1983 to 2001, and two -- Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., served in past cabinets.
Mark Pryor, D-Ark., is the son of former Sen. David Pryor and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, last month was appointed by her father Frank Murkowski to fill his seat after he resigned to become Alaska's governor.