Correction to This Article
A version of this story that appeared in today's print editions did not include the first name of Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) This version has been corrected.

In New Congress, Seniority Takes Back Seat to Spirit

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 11, 2006; 4:14 PM

They call themselves the "30-Something Working Group," a loose collection of House Democrats in their 30s and 40s who have begun making waves.

During the campaign season, the group took to the floor of the House nightly to give speeches during a period known as special orders, when lawmakers are permitted to speak for up to an hour about any topic after the day's business is complete.

The core of the group -- Reps. Kendrick Meek and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Timothy J. Ryan of Ohio -- began talking at 10 or 11 p.m. Never mind that the House chamber was essentially empty at that hour. C-SPAN was recording the sessions, and insomniacs around the country got to know the three young Democrats. The trio sometimes used props and took irreverent jabs at the Republicans in honing their party's message.

"I was in the Minneapolis airport and the clerk in a shop said to me 'Are you on TV?' " Wasserman Schultz said. "I couldn't believe it. People across the country were watching."

The young Democrats played an important role in helping their party take control of Congress, and now they are beginning to reap the benefits. Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who will become speaker of the House when her party assumes control of Congress next month, is making room for these and other young House Democrats, giving them opportunities they would not normally enjoy under the rigid seniority system that typically defines life in the Capitol.

Last week, Pelosi announced Wasserman Schultz will be a deputy chief whip and Meek and Ryan will serve on the party's steering committee, which sets policy and makes committee assignments, along with two incoming freshmen. In addition, Wasserman Schultz and Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) are being considered for a seat on the prestigious Ways and Means Committee, which sets tax policy, and Meek is vying for a seat on the Appropriations Committee.

"Some members have waited four or five terms to be a member of Appropriations or Ways and Means," said Meek, who hauled an oversized rubber stamp to the House floor to argue that the Republican Congress was in lockstep with the White House. "The fact that an incoming third-termer is even being considered is evidence that Speaker Pelosi is committed to giving opportunities to younger members to participate in real policymaking."

At a Tuesday meeting of the Democratic caucus, where House members heard from several experts about Iraq, Pelosi insisted that freshmen members ask the first round of questions, a departure from past practice.

And when the new Congress convenes next month, Democratic leaders will break an ethics reform package into several individual bills so that freshmen can introduce each bill and get their first opportunity to make a speech on the House floor.

The idea, aides and party strategists say, is to put a younger, fresh face on the Democrats to embody the change Pelosi promised throughout the midterm campaign. They say she wants to reward several young lawmakers who worked hard during the election. And she wants to help establish those who won Republican seats and need to gain credibility before the 2008 election. She is also looking for ways to cultivate young voters for the party, aides say.

"People who were recently elected and have been through tough elections have a sense of the mood of the country and their communities, and [Pelosi] wants to encourage those voices," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), 48, also considered part of the new generation. "There was a period of time where the attitude was newer members should be seen and not heard. That's not the case."

Van Hollen worked closely during the campaign season with Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and is a leading candidate to replace Emanuel as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Emanuel, 47, was elected chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, making him the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House.

One common thread that set the young representatives apart from longtime party stalwarts was a hunger and a determination to take control of Congress, several younger members said.

"The 'old bulls' have been in the minority for 12 years, and all of them recognize what landed us in the minority and that a new working order is necessary and is in the works," said Rep. Stephanie Herseth, a sophomore lawmaker from South Dakota.

Almost two-thirds of the Democratic veterans in the House have known only life under GOP rule. "They stopped believing it was possible," Wasserman Schultz said. "If you keep losing election cycle after election cycle, it wears you down. We were able to restore some of their belief. They needed our energy and our intensity."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company