Congress's pragmatic newcomers

Capitol Hill freshmen promise practicality over party loyalty.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

From time to time, a freshman class in Congress leaves its mark on Capitol Hill. There were the reform-minded Watergate babies of 1974. More recently came the GOP insurgent "citizen legislators" of '94.

Now, the class of '06, too, has been elected on a surge of voter discontent, and although the new class isn't as big as those two, it has the potential to leave its own stamp.

If interviews with incoming freshmen are any indication, that mark will be pragmatism first, even at the expense of party loyalty, and a get-things-done sensibility.

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This pragmatic tone is good news for moderates in both parties, who have been marginalized in the past few Congresses.

Rising again is the Blue Dog Coalition, which moderate Democrats formed in 1994 to steer their party back to an agenda of fiscal restraint and national security after they lost control of the House of Representatives.

"It's the largest freshman class the Blue Dogs ever had," says Eric Wortman, a spokesman for the coalition.

The group is also likely to wield more power in the new Congress. "With 44 votes, we'll have a voice in what comes to the floor and, if not, in what passes," says Rep. Mike Ross (D) of Arkansas, communications director for the Blue Dog Coalition and a third-term lawmaker.

"We're going to do our part to govern from the middle. The message [voters] sent is that they want us to put an end to partisan bickering and get something done for the American people," he adds. "The freshmen seem to fit in very well.... They get the issues."

Changing winds in Washington

With the Democratic edge in both the House and Senate still relatively small, the new class is set to play a pivotal role on issues ranging from fiscal discipline to ending the war in Iraq.

A former Republican, Nancy Boyda (D) of Kansas campaigned on the idea that the GOP had lost touch with mainstream America, especially on the war in Iraq.

Along with Ms. Boyda, a former chemist, the new class contains a former admiral, three musicians, an ex-Washington Redskins quarterback, and a sheriff. More than half of the House freshmen are lawyers, no surprise. More than 4 in 10 have no previous experience as legislators – an unusually high percentage in an era when many lawmakers are recruited from state legislatures.

"Our class is very idealistic," says Boyda, who defeated Olympic legend and five-term GOP Rep. Jim Ryun. "There are a number of people who aren't experienced in politics and don't seem to fit into a political mold. But if we don't get the job done, we'll be kicked out of office."

In another sign that the mood is shifting on Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans sat together for the first two days of freshman orientation for the first time in years, which many newcomers welcomed.

"I didn't run on the left or on the right. I ran to solve problems," says Representative-elect Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, after orientation.

"We were told [by voters] to fix the process. I was pleased to find others who think like me," adds Mr. Sestak, a retired vice admiral and former adviser to President Clinton.

Still, with 435 House members and the rules stacked to the advantage of party leadership, it's the rare freshman class that can change the tenor of an institution.

Take the Watergate babies, for example. Elected after President Nixon's resignation in 1974, 75 freshman Democrats campaigned to clean up the culture of Washington. They launched the most sweeping internal reforms in a generation, decentralized power, ousted three longtime committee chairmen, multiplied the number of committees and the size of committee staff, and opened the House to more public scrutiny.

The 73 Republicans in the class of '94 swept the GOP back into power in the House for the first time in 42 years on a pledge to end corruption in the Congress and reduce the size of government. Reversing the reforms of the Watergate babies, they rerouted power from committees to the speaker. But their refusal to compromise with the more moderate Senate sank much of their reform agenda.

Many prominent veterans of the '94 GOP class were defeated Nov. 7, including Reps. J. D. Hayworth of Arizona, John Hostettler of Indiana, Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota, Charles Bass of New Hampshire, and Sue Kelly of New York.

Reps. Robert Ney of Ohio and Mark Foley of Florida, also members of the class of '94, resigned over wrongdoing before the election. The class of 2006 also comes to Congress with what they see as a clear mandate from voters for change – but not necessarily along partisan lines.

For many Democrats elected in previously staunch Republican districts, that means paying closer attention to the mood of constituents than falling in lockstep with national Democratic Party leadership that tends to be more liberal.

That was the thinking behind incoming Democratic Rep. Harry Mitchell's decision to attend a Blue Dog caucus last week.

"I met with the Blue Dogs. It's not what I am, but it fits my district" in Arizona, Mr. Mitchell says.

Nationally, the public wants to see bipartisanship in the next Congress, members say.

"The question is: How can we work together to do the right things for the people of America? Only through working together, crossing partisan lines – that's what my voters told me was important," said incoming Rep. Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, who upset Mr. Hostettler.

A local sheriff who has been pegged as an early star of the 110th Congress, Mr. Ellsworth opposes gun control and abortion rights and favors strict enforcement of the nation's immigration laws.

The question of party loyalty

Congressional analysts say the pressure on the Democrats to line up with the party on key votes may prove overwhelming, even for those in traditionally conservative districts.

"Just as Democrats will try to find a few bills to make the Indiana-type moderates happy, those new freshman moderates are going to have a lot of incentive to follow the party line if they want their party to retain control in 2008," says Julian Zelizer, a historian at Boston University.

"Although some might say they don't care about staying in office, just as the 1994 freshmen said, they usually do. In a period of narrow margins, the handful of moderates will realize they have an incentive to vote with the party and obtain a victory rather than insisting on bills that would never pass their caucus and leave the Democrats with nothing to run on in 2008," he adds.

But at the same time, Democratic Party leaders are already signaling to freshmen that as important as their vote is their ability to hold onto their seats, many in traditionally Republican districts, in 2008.

"I've been told at least twice by [the Democratic] leadership since I've been here that 'representative' isn't only a title, it's a job description, and that I'd better represent my district," said Boyda, whose Kansas district gave President Bush 59 percent of the vote in 2004.

On the other side of the aisle, one of only 13 Republicans in the freshman class, incoming Rep. Mary Fallin (R) of Oklahoma says that Republicans "feel a mandate from the public that they want us to get things done."

"It's important to show people that we're Americans first, not just a party wanting to do something. If we don't earn back the confidence of voters ... all of us can be at risk," she added.

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