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Freshman class arrives in Washington

New lawmakers swept into office by the conservative 'tea party' movement visit the Capitol — and cope with dueling orientation seminars from supporting groups.

November 15, 2010|By Kathleen Hennessey and Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — A new class of freshman lawmakers came to Capitol Hill on Monday to learn the ways of Washington — while the conservative activists taking credit for sweeping them into office warned them not to learn Washington's ways too well.

About 100 new lawmakers walked the halls of Congress for the first time since this month's election, many of them conservatives proud of their limited political experience and planning to shake up Washington.

Two new members of the Senate — Democrats Chris Coons of Delaware and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — were sworn in Monday, while other newly elected senators met with party leaders. House members arrived for a weeklong orientation program.

Between meetings, lawmakers chatted up their new colleagues like professionals at a business conference, their names on temporary ID badges. Several befuddled senators-to-be wandered into the stately halls, asking for directions to the restroom.

The tone of the newcomers was hopeful and determined, if slightly tempered from the highs of the campaign.

"Our job now is to make sure we don't fumble the ball," said Rep.-elect Steve Womack, the mayor of Rogers, Ark. "We're going to be aggressive and try to hold even some of the veteran members of our caucus accountable. With the size of our class, let me tell you, they're going to pay attention to us."

Indeed, there has been no shortage of attention.

As the new lawmakers arrived, a cast of Washington interests vied for their eyes and ears. The conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks hosted a weekend training session in Baltimore. Party leaders feted the members and their spouses.

But before new members could even check into their hotels on Sunday, a "tea party" group and some familiar Washington figures were openly fighting for the attention of freshmen, staging dueling orientation seminars.

One seminar was organized by the Tea Party Patriots; the other by a group of freshmen, lobbyists and a conservative think tank called the Claremont Institute. The tea party group accused the Claremont Institute of trying to "steal our freshmen" and asked supporters in an e-mail to contact the new members and urge them to attend the "right" orientation.

The e-mail listed some lawmakers' personal cellphone numbers and e-mail addresses — an approach that didn't win many friends. The group has since apologized. (It also apologized for listing the contact information for some Republicans who didn't win their elections.)

"I got 167 e-mails. I wasn't too happy about it. I'd say they lost some credibility," said Rep.-elect Bill Long, an auctioneer from Missouri who attended the tea party event.

Long said the message from the tea party activists was clear: "They wanted us to know we're being watched."

Newcomers didn't need to attend the event to get the message. While they met inside the Capitol — discussing ethics laws and House rules — a group of tea party activists rallied outside. Their signs called for the repeal of the healthcare law and suggested that Democratic policies were communistic.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) were greeted like stars. They urged the crowd to keep a watchful eye on Democrats in this lame-duck session and make sure Republicans hold the line on spending. "No compromise" was a favorite applause line.

As the rally continued, incoming senators met inside for a rare bipartisan lunch behind closed doors, beginning a series of orientation sessions that will extend through the week.

Republican Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah was among those who addressed the meeting.

"I told them regardless of your partisan position, recognize the senators with whom you dealing are not caricatures, they're real people," Bennett said. "Whether you're Republican or Democrat, you're dealing with a real human being. Make friends across the aisle or across ideological barriers and life will be a whole lot better."

Bennett lost his primary to a tea party challenger, Mike Lee.

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