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Congress's pragmatic newcomers

Capitol Hill freshmen promise practicality over party loyalty.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 24, 2006


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.

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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.

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.