Freshmen Swap Tales On House's Hectic Pace

POSTCARD FROM HILL

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN circus elephants stomp across the Capitol plaza tomorrow in a ceremony saluting the triumphal conclusion of the Contract With America, Joe Scarborough and Zoe Lofgren will share a smile. After 100 grueling days of lawmaking, both are tired and glad it's over.

Beyond that, the two freshmen have as much in common as a lion tamer and an accountant. Both have fought hard in their first three months in office. But they are on opposite sides of a mighty struggle to redefine government, and their experiences during the past three months, as much as anything else, tell the story of the 104th Congress.

Mr. Scarborough, a Republican from Florida, is a GOP poster child: young, politically inexperienced, eager to deconstruct federal government. His class gave Republicans control of the House for the first time in 40 years and consequently wields extraordinary influence with party brass. The more radically he thinks, the more he is valued.

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''I feel like I'm part of a process,'' Scarborough says.

Scarborough adds: ''Not only are we framing the agenda of the House, but in a smaller way we are framing the presidential debate.... As long as we keep getting things done, I'm glad to be here.''

Ms. Lofgren doesn't share the same satisfaction. A Democrat from California, she arrived in Washington to find a party disoriented by defeat. Her class -- a mere 13 -- is too small to carry a collective voice. Though an advocate of change, she has emerged as a formidable critic of GOP proposals to restitch -- or unstitch, she might say -- the social safety net.

''I'm frustrated by the sheer volume of the stupid things we've done,'' Lofgren says. ''In many cases the Republicans have identified the correct issue,'' but offered the wrong solution.

Late one night this week, Scarborough reflected on the frenetic start of his congressional career; he spends 15 hours a day on the Hill and hasn't eaten dinner at his Virginia apartment once since Congress opened. He's missed only one weekend in his district, running from one town meeting to another.

Scarborough calls his class the ideological conscience of the party, threatening the leadership whenever it wavered from tax protection or deficit reduction and leading efforts to eliminate several federal agencies (a cause, Scarborough says proudly, that presidential candidate Sen. Bob Dole has adopted).

The Floridian credits his seminal moment, however, to a heated exchange last week over term limits. Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts sought insight into the framers' thinking on congressional tenure:

Mr. Frank: ''I yield to the constitutional scholar from Florida.''

Scarborough: ''Not only were there certain things excluded from the Constitution, there were other things mentioned that were not included in there such as issues regarding what eventually came in under the 13th and 14th Amendments.''

Frank: ''Reclaiming my time.... The explanation for [term limits] not being in [the Constitution] is that there are other things that were not in there. I understand that.''

Scarborough later had a good laugh with Frank in the hallway. ''I learned a valuable lesson: Yield for two seconds, take the time back, and call your opponent mindless.''

Term limits marked a rare defeat for Scarborough and his fellow Republicans. For Lofgren and her colleagues, rejected amendments are a fact of their minority status. Yet the freshman from San Jose, Calif., still bristles over one lost battle in particular.

During her 14 years as a county superviser, Lofgren built a record as an advocate of education issues. She carried that cause to Washington, challenging the GOP on everything from child pornography to school lunches.

When Republicans brought a national security bill to the floor, she tried to introduce an amendment that would have redirected money requested for the Strategic Defense Initiative, spending it instead to extend the length of the school day in every public school in the country. Republicans cut her off before she could offer the amendment.

''[Majority leader Richard] Armey later sent a representative to apologize, but that wasn't enough,'' she says, her voice calm and resolute. She was never allowed a second chance.

Being part of an overshadowed freshman class has had its pros and cons, Lofgren says. As one of only a handful, she has received plenty of national exposure, appearing on national radio and TV broadcasts.

But her class does not hold the same significance with Democratic Party leaders that GOP freshmen have among Republicans. She sits on a weekly agenda-formulating task force, but her voice is her own; her class is not large enough to swing party policy.

LOFGREN also has returned home every weekend but one, and her days have been nonstop. Moments after this interview, she is on the floor giving an after-hours defense of student loans.

Her staff is preparing stacks of facts and figures to inform her constituents about the harmful effects of Republican efforts to pare back social programs to pay for tax cuts. The April recess won't mean vacation.

Is she glad to be in Congress? With a laugh, she gives an answer that echoes Scarborough's. They've both seen the new legislative schedule for May and beyond. Fortunately, the next 100 days won't be as hectic as the first.

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