WASHINGTON – Congressional Republicans welcomed Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) to Capitol Hill Wednesday with words of praise and plenty of stargazing for the governor-elect who delivered California from the Democrats.
The celluloid hero-turned-politician also had lunch with his Uncle Ted, better known in Washington as Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Schwarzenegger's first official visit to the nation's capital -- and the Republican-controlled Congress -- was supposed to be a victory lap, but the wildfires devastating Southern California turned the trip into one part emergency mission, one part spectacle that electrified the Capitol's businesslike atmosphere.
As he moved along the marbled hallways, Schwarzenegger was trailed by an entourage that seemed more suited to a visiting head of state than to a political neophyte who hasn't been sworn into office. He was flanked by staff, a security detail, lawmakers and any number of curious onlookers. Several dozen reporters and as many as 20 television crews were there to greet him at each of his news conferences.
"He's much more impressive in person than in pictures," Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said of the Hollywood actor.
Reviewing the often chaotic scene in the Capitol, spokesman Rob Stutzman said Schwarzenegger was fully aware of the effect of his star power and he planned to put it to good use.
"The governor-elect understands what his political capital is," Stutzman said. "And one of the reasons I believe he will succeed is that he will appropriate it effectively."
Schwarzenegger began his day meeting with Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (search), and help for fire-scorched California was on the agenda. He also met with the House and Senate leadership; the California congressional delegation, including Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein; and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.
"I came basically to Washington to establish relationships and to make sure we are getting more federal money for California as I promised in my campaign," Schwarzenegger told reporters following a meeting with House Republicans. "But of course the recent events, the huge disastrous fires have changed my mission a little bit. I'm now looking for federal money for the people, the victims of the fire."
After the morning session at the Capitol, Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver (search), joined Kennedy, a 41-year veteran of Congress and Massachusetts' senior senator, at the Willard Hotel for lunch.
"Arnold and I have been friends for many, many years, we've enjoyed a lot of good times, and members of our family look forward to that in the future," Kennedy said in a brief appearance following the luncheon.
Schwarzenegger called Kennedy his "favorite uncle-in-law."
"He is terrific, he is a good balance between my more conservative way of thinking and his more liberal way of thinking," Schwarzenegger said. "I feel really good and proud to have such a good and strong and smart person working next to me."
Other Democrats appeared intrigued by Schwarzenegger, even after many campaigned hard against him in the weeks before the Oct. 7 recall election. Still, Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., warned that despite Democrats' willingness to work with Schwarzenegger, differences remain.
"Our values were formed long before Mr. Schwarzenegger was elected to office. Those values will remain unchanged, and we are looking to see where we will be able to cooperate and where we will have to take diametrically opposed positions," Lantos said.
Feinstein said she was willing put aside old scores and work with Schwarzenegger.
"What's past is past. One of the ways that I think we have to go is to turn the page and move on," she said.
Added Schwarzenegger: "You have to understand the way it works in politics -- she's not going to come out and cut a commercial for me. We will be working together like a jewel."
The governor-elect promised to support Feinstein's effort to extend a federal ban on assault weapons (search), which has been a signature issue for her for many years.