Congress welcomes freshmen, and those on the cusp of membership


House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi introduces the newest members of the Democratic caucus to the media at the Capitol Visitors Center Tuesday. (Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON POST)
November 13, 2012

Ami Bera stood in the front lobby of the Capitol Hill Hotel as dozens of newly minted members of Congress filed in from the chilly rain. His gray suit, yellow tie, black trench coat and U.S. House of Representatives badge labeled him as a member-elect of the 113th Congress.

Although technically, he’s not — not yet, at least. And maybe not ever. As Bera arrived Tuesday for the opening day of congressional orientation for newly elected members, he remained locked in a tight race with Rep. Dan Lungren (R) for the honor of representing California’s 7th District. When Bera took the red-eye to Washington from Sacramento he led by a mere 1,779 votes, with thousands of votes yet to be counted.

Bera, a doctor, arrived at orientation just before 10 a.m. and was handed registration materials that tagged him as one of seven invitees with “final election results pending” — although one of those races has since been resolved.

Awkward, perhaps, to start learning the congressional ropes before the election results are known?

“It isn’t,” Bera said with an easy smile. “We put it all out there. We knew it was going to be a close race.”

Bush v. Gore aside, elections are meant to be definitive, the ultimate expression of a citizenry’s choices. But that lack of finality won’t stop the Committee on House Administration from moving forward.

When a race is unresolved, the committee still invites candidates to Washington for the orientation sessions. This year, with Election Day falling on Nov. 6 and butting up against Veterans Day and an early Thanksgiving, there was little time to tuck in training for the new members. So the freshmen were summoned to town only seven days after votes were cast. But if a winner is declared before the week is out, the loser is quickly disinvited.

Among those who could face that humiliation is David Rouzer (R), a state senator in central North Carolina, who trails Rep. Mike McIntyre (D) by a few hundred votes with some provisional and absentee ballots yet to be counted. Rouzer optimistically signed up for orientation, nonetheless.

Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) won a special election to fill out the remainder of Gabrielle Gifford’s term. He’s now running for a full term against Martha McSally (R) in a race that has seesawed and still has not been decided. McSally, for now, is staying put in Arizona.

Californian Scott H. Peters (D), a former city councilman and port commissioner from San Diego, is also in limbo. Peters holds a slim lead over Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R), but there are tens of thousands of votes yet to count.

Still, Peters registered for orientation and put on a happy face. His wife is also in town to help him pick out an apartment. And there he was, standing in the second row behind House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at an afternoon news conference where she introduced the newest members of her caucus.

“No one’s treating me like I’ve got leprosy or anything like that,” Peters said after the news conference. “I’m here because I really want to make sure I am ready to hit the ground running like everybody else when I put my hand up to take the the oath of office.”

Bera’s situation is arguably more awkward than most. That’s because Lungren, Bera’s opponent, is chairman of the Committee on House Administration, which oversees orientation.

“It’s not unusual,” said Steve Dutton, a spokesman for the committee, noting that these orientations often play host to candidates whose races haven’t been decided.

Bera’s status as a candidate-in-limbo Tuesday seemed to make him something of a standout. Reporters from Fox, NBC and CBS asked his opinion about the fiscal cliff and whether a grand bargain on deficit reduction should be struck during the current lame-duck session.

“Look, the 112th Congress has had two years and they didn’t act,” Bera said.

He ran for the seat in 2010 but lost to Lungren. Now Bera tells reporters he is proud to be a part of the most diverse congressional class in history: If he is declared the winner, he will be just the third Indian American elected to Congress.

Bera is confident he will be in town all week. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) saw him walking down Pennsylvania Avenue and gave him a great big “welcome to Washington” hug. How is it going, she wanted to know. Was his team watching every ballot?

“We have a great election protection team in place,” Bera said.

“Good. Good,” Bass said. “My office will be here to help get you get acclimated. Anything you need. I’ll see you at the reception tonight.”

“Okay,” Bera said, thanking her and rushing off. By the end of the day, Bera’s lead had grown to 3,824 votes, with about 40,000 ballots left to count.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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