For Anne Northup, the opening of the 105th Congress last week was nothing less than a baptism by fire.
The freshman representative from Kentucky, like all Republicans in the House of Representatives, found herself grappling with the issue of whether to reelect Newt Gingrich as Speaker - before she had even taken the oath of office.
But Mrs. Northup - congresswoman, wife, and mother of six - did not resent having to make a decision. "Everybody says this is just so traumatic, that it's a terrible way to start," she says. "But I didn't feel that way at all. I've been in the Kentucky legislature. Stepping up and voting is what this job's all about."
Still, the intensity of the Gingrich controversy was not lost on her. As Northup tells it, she was sitting in a Louisville, Ky., restaurant with her husband and five or six other couples. Several people stopped by to congratulate her on her recent election, saying they hoped she would "stand with Newt Gingrich." Some of her friends at the table said to her, "'Oh, I certainly hope you're not.' So I understand how controversial it is."
Once she decided to vote for Mr. Gingrich, Northup says, "It was a vote I was very comfortable with. I always got involved in public policy with the idea that I never want to love my job or my position so much that I start casting votes based on political expediency rather than what I think is right."
"The longer I looked and read and really got to know the ethical questions or charges that were being leveled, ... I thought they were outrageous," Northup says. "There's not a shred of evidence that Newt Gingrich has ever profited personally from anything he's done, that he ever commingled funds, ever violated the tax code."
Republican caucus members who did not support Gingrich, such as Banking Committee chairman James Leach of Iowa, should step down from their leadership positions, Northup says. "I would think that Jim Leach would resign. He doesn't want to be part of that leadership team, clearly." (Nine of the 228 House Republicans did not vote for the Speaker.) But she doesn't go so far as to suggest that the GOP caucus should remove Mr. Leach and others from their committee posts, opting instead to see what her colleagues think.
According to Northup, few Republicans who voted against Gingrich believe he is unethical. "What they're really saying is this is a public-relations problem.... That's a whole different thing than having a moral problem."
It hasn't been all Gingrich and ethics, of course. After her freshman orientation in November, she took a vacation with her family, then returned to Kentucky for her final session of the state legislature. In December, she hired a staff of six in Washington, moved into her House office, and opened an office in her Louisville district.
Northup lobbied for and got a post on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, a position not easily obtained by newcomers on Capitol Hill. But her appropriations and budget experience in the state legislature and her economics degree helped. So did the GOP leadership's desire to seat a Republican woman on the committee.
"It specifically was raised with me ... that one of the problems the committee had was that Democratic members would say, 'Well, we represent soccer moms and this is what they think.' It would be nice to have somebody who could say, 'I am a soccer mom, and there's another way to look at this. All soccer moms don't think alike.'"
In accord with her status at the bottom rung of the seniority ladder, Northup's office is a small suite on the ground floor of the Longworth House Office Building, with a sweeping view of some side-entrance stairs. But it has the advantage of being close to the tunnel that leads to the Capitol, meaning she doesn't have far to go - about one city block - to reach the House floor.
Northup says the "notoriety" of her new role has been a surprise. Now when she goes shopping in Louisville, people stop her to talk. "That feels really funny to me.... It makes everything take much longer, because people deserve your undivided attention for a few minutes and an opportunity to tell you what they think."
Northup looks forward to February, when lawmakers will focus on "what we're really elected to do." But first, she and her colleagues must decide on a sanction for the Speaker's ethics violations. "I would assume there will be a lot more documentation, and I'll read that and see if it changes my mind. I don't expect it to."
She adds: "If you think it's hard not to make everybody happy, this is not a good job for you. I say all the time the best training for this job was being the mother of six children. I never made them all happy all the time."