WASHINGTON — IT'S a Thursday afternoon on Capitol Hill and just outside the House chamber, a group of congressmen huddles in a circle, making goo-goo noises.
At the center is Will Orton, the three-month-old son of Rep. Bill Orton (D) of Utah.
Will already has seen much of the inner workings of Congress. He has gurgled at fund-raisers, spit up at staff meetings, and cried in front of constituents. He has even watched hundreds of politicians do strange and goofy things on purpose: a phenomenon usually reserved for campaigns.
By bringing his son to work on Tuesdays and Thursdays (generally when he doesn't have formal committee hearings), Representative Orton has become the first member of Congress to walk the corridors of power behind a stroller. But as more young parents attempt to balance demanding political careers with childrearing, he probably won't be the last.
''I've heard about what you're doing,'' says a tourist from Wisconsin who stops Orton in the hallway, ''and I think it's terrific.''
Orton says that he and his wife Jacquelyn, a former lobbyist, came up with the plan because his 18- to 20- hour-a-day schedule would have prevented him from seeing his first-born at all during the week. ''Unless I take Will with me,'' Orton says, ''I'm gone before he's up in the morning and home after he's in bed at night.''
''I don't want to be an absentee parent,'' Orton says.
Taking care of Will at work has changed Orton's routine. The third-term Democrat from Sundance, Utah, now carries important papers in the bottom pouch of Will's stroller, keeps bottles of milk in his office freezer, and stuffs his cabinets with diapers. On days when he's caring for Will, he tries to keep committee meetings and floor speeches to a minimum.
The Capitol, he says, is not baby-friendly. There's no place to change a diaper, he says, and he constantly finds himself hoisting Will's stroller up flights of stairs.
As the youngest ad hoc member of Congress, Will is already learning the ropes. Whenever Orton brings Will to the House floor for a vote on the plethora of Republican bills, he says the baby inevitably plays with the red card his father uses to vote no. ''I have reason to believe that Will is a Democrat,'' he says.
Yet whatever his party affiliation, Will gets high approval ratings wherever he goes. On days when he leaves the baby at home, Orton hears questions like: ''Where's Will?'' and ''Are you sure you didn't leave Will on the bus?''
Babysitting offers are ubiquitous, he says, as are people who ask to hold the baby and ask: ''Don't you need to go to do something?''
Last week, at a White House event, Orton recalls how President Clinton, upon seeing Will, was instantly smitten. ''He just kind of grabbed him,'' Orton says.
''Then he said, 'You can tell I've done this before,' and everybody laughed.'' The president bounced Will in his arms for about five minutes as the White House photographer struggled to reload his camera to take a few pictures, Orton says.
Will seems to take it all in stride. ''He's very easygoing,'' Orton says. ''I don't think we could do this if he wasn't.''
At times, Will even seems to be enjoying all the attention. When a photographer points a camera at him, he looks right at it. ''I think he's a camera hog,'' his father concedes.
Orton's idea may be catching on. Last week, Rep. Dave Camp (R) of Michigan, whose wife is expecting, showed up at Orton's office with orders from Mrs. Camp to ''take good notes.''
Is it worth it?
''Definitely,'' says Orton, a moderate Democrat from a generally conservative state. ''Fathers miss a lot. So many people come up to me and say, 'I wish my children were this size again,' or they tell me not to let this job take precedence over that job. Advice like that is heartening.
''I tell Will I'm making a deal with him,'' Orton continues. ''I'll wipe all the drool off his chin now and keep it in now and keep it dry, if when I'm old, he'll do the same thing for me.''
Having Will around has also changed Orton's perspective on legislation. The fact that he is able to do this at all, he says, makes him realize how hard it must be for the millions of Americans who have to leave their children in day care centers all day in order to earn enough money to keep them in shoes.
''Our job here in Congress is to try to deal with the issues and problems in our nation and around the world for this next generation,'' Orton says, glancing at his now-sleeping son. ''It affects the way you vote.''
Of course, there are those who claim that Orton's babysitting is just a publicity ploy, a charge that seems unlikely whenever Orton starts gushing about his newborn son.
''One guy told me I ought to put Will on my campaign payroll because he's getting more votes than I am,'' Orton says. ''I told him that was probably true. Democrat or Republican, everybody loves a baby.''