Congress's Freshman Class Will Tackle Economy, Jobs

Largest group since '48 gears up for orientation, coalition-building

WHAT do you do if you've just been elected to Congress and there's a few weeks to go before orientation?

Take your family to Disney World, of course, says Rep.-elect Steve Buyer (R) of Indiana. (Yes, they're really going). Rep.-elect Karan English, an Arizona Democrat who got married in July, finally gets to take her honeymoon in the Bahamas and Puerto Rico.

Many are tying up loose ends at their old jobs as state legislators, port commissioners, or teachers. And many have also, or will soon, come to Washington to house-hunt - and talk to the congressional leadership about committee assignments. Or they talked about committee posts when the leadership came to them last week in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta.

Although the United States House of Representatives' freshman class - 110 strong, the largest since 1948 - is best known for boosting its ranks of women and minorities to record numbers, it has another salient feature: Almost three-quarters have held elected office. They know how to play the game. Even though they campaigned as "outsiders" seeking to change business as usual in Washington, they also know that the first step is to solidify connections with those in charge.

"Well, maybe we are seasoned politicians, but we have a strong sense of reality as to what we can do and what we can't do," says Rep.-elect Leslie Byrne (D) of Virginia, a state legislator. It's "absolutely true" that freshman Democrats want to work with the leadership, she says, but "the question is how and whether we move for substantive change in the process or just change for change's sake."

In fact, congressional reform is less important to freshmen Democrats than stimulating the economy and creating jobs, according to a U.S. News & World Report survey of 70 percent of the freshmen.

Reports of last week's Democratic leadership meetings with freshmen confirm that conclusion. What was initially billed as a coming onslaught of angry outsiders ready to set Capitol Hill afire suddenly looks like a giant Democratic love fest.

Republican freshmen, feeling a bit left out in the cold, complain that House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington tamed his freshman class.

But, for now at least, the party is unified about its priority - the economy and jobs - and about the need to have the 103rd Congress up and running by the Jan. 20 inauguration.

Republicans can't really complain. Every member, new and old, will be judged in two years by what he has done to create jobs in his community. In Representative-elect Buyer's district, for example, Grissom Air Force Base is slated to be closed.

Buyer says as a freshman in the minority party, it will be difficult to wield power. His best option is coalition-building. "That's the only way Bush could sustain all his vetoes."

Democratic freshmen bristle at the suggestion that they've been co-opted. Those who attended an early orientation meeting say the meetings went smoothly because the leaders' policy positions jibed with their own.

Rep.-elect Dan Hamburg (D) of California went in "braced for a possible fight," his campaign manager, Chip Reynolds, says. "But he found the leadership speaking language he wanted to hear."

All freshmen will not gather in one place until December, before formal orientation with the leadership. But Representative-elect Byrne sees evidence that the class takes its role as a force for change seriously. She has seen "a number of communications floating back and forth" among new members talking about congressional reforms and legislative plans, looking for consensus. "With this overwhelming number, I think they're looking to influence the process more than any other freshman class," she says.

If history is any guide, this kind of freshman-class unity is likely to dissipate once the new members take their committee seats and take up specifics of their constituents' agendas.

The incentive for cooperation between new members and the leadership is greatest right now. New members want to please the leadership to get choice committee assignments - a few freshmen will get a shot at Appropriations and Ways and Means, both especially pivotal now - and the leadership needs the new members' votes to remain in power.

Even the infamous class of '74, the "Watergate babies," which immediately deposed three powerful chairmen and decentralized leadership, had lost much potency as a force after its first term.

Though both the class of '74 (92 members) and the latest new class are large, similarities end quickly. The '74 class had a much higher proportion of Democrats to Republicans (75-17) than the current class (63-47), and the earlier class was dominated by nonpoliticians. Most important, Watergate had left the American people with such a disdain for the executive branch that cooperation with the president was not on the agenda. At the White House, the feeling was mutual.

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