Pragmatic newcomers may smooth a divided Congress

Freshman class is small but experienced - and is prepared to work across party lines.

The freshman class of legislators now setting up offices on Capitol Hill is among the most experienced in recent generations.

They'll need it. The fierce struggle for the presidency is likely to leave the new Congress with a legacy of acrimony that will take more than mere professions of bipartisanship to overcome. This new class thinks they can do it.

They don't have the sheer mass of most previous incoming classes. The 41 newcomers in the US House of Representatives make up only 9 percent of that body, while most classes since the 1950s weighed in at double-digits.

But 30 of the 41 have had considerable experience in state legislatures, often in leadership positions. Twenty-eight are Republicans; 13 are Democrats. They're also aware that they are stepping into a more evenly divided legislature than any in the past century. And many see that as a historic opportunity to make a difference.

"Most of us have had legislative experience and understand the importance of bipartisan legislation to get anything done," says Eric Cantor (R), a veteran of the Virginia state legislature who is replacing his former boss, retiring Rep. Thomas Bliley Jr. (R).

For Mr. Cantor, like many in this incoming class, bipartisanship is a mantra. Many were elected in close races from swing districts, and ran on pledges to work across the aisle to get things done for their districts.

"What I emphasized in my campaign was the need to work across party lines and focus on issues that affect people's lives," says Adam Schiff, a Democrat who defeated Rep. James Rogan (R) of California in the most expensive campaign in the history of the House. "With the new president likely coming in under a cloud and with no mandate, this kind of work will be even more imperative."

For incoming freshmen, the orientation period is usually overwhelmingly partisan. Early on, newcomers are swept up into meetings with the leadership of their own parties - part of the process of becoming known and getting assigned to committees that will do their districts the most good. In such a climate, bipartisanship is often a promise soon forgotten.

"Every two years, it seems, the Congress remakes and restores itself through a class of new members whose first-time election mantles and mandates appear to be a little brighter and clearer than those of their senior colleagues," says Don Wolfensberger of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here. "This may all be an illusion," he adds, "but it is nevertheless a useful illusion for the citizens and their national legislature."

This year's class, both Democrats and Republicans, say they want this renewal to be more than symbolic. Contacts across party lines will continue well into the session, they say. And for the first time, freshmen in both parties designated official ambassadors to the other side.

"The first time we got together, we liked each other," says Edward Schrock (R) of Virginia, who was elected president of the House freshmen. "Everyone is following what is going on in Florida, but we're all in this together - and we've come here to get something done."

Many of these newcomers know what it takes to get things done in a deeply divided legislature.

Ander Crenshaw (R) of Florida presided over a state Senate that was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats in 1993. As the first Republican elected president of the Florida state Senate, he was known as a lawmaker who could pull together a consensus.

Democrat Susan Davis was in the California state Legislature when her party lost the majority. "People were at war for a while, but eventually you are forced to work in a bipartisan fashion," she says. She adds that her class has the experience to do the same.

"We have a lot of people in this class with experience in bipartisanship and problemsolving. And a lot of people here were elected by a very small number of votes. We know that it will take developing relationships with people," she adds.

Pat Tiberi (R) of Ohio is also succeeding his former boss, Rep. John Kasich (R). As majority floor leader of the Ohio House, Mr. Tiberi was known for building coalitions across party lines.

Jane Harmon (D) of California is an accomplished lawmaker, returning to Congress after losing a 1998 bid to be governor of California. She campaigned to change the culture of a Congress that has become "dysfunctional."

Changing the culture of Congress is no easy task. With more and more members living in their districts, opportunities to get to know members across party lines are increasingly rare. Most members are now in town only three days a week, and evenings are often given up to fundraising.

But veteran lawmakers in both parties say that this new class could make a difference in the partisan dynamics of the Congress.

"We're really pleased with the new class," says Rep. Calvin Dooley (D) of California, head of the New Democratic Network, a centrist group. "It appears of the new 13 Democrats elected, 10 will join" the network.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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