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Between losing and going home: The House basement

"That's the job of Congress," said Hall, a singer-songwriter whose band Orleans recorded the 1970s hit "Still the One." Now, he's sitting unshaven in a basement cafeteria because there's no room to talk in his new office, Cubicle 44. "I did my job," he said.

The departing members also remembered, fondly, their power to intercede for constituents. As lowly as a freshman is on Capitol Hill, he is a giant to a bureaucrat.

"I was surprised by the extent of power that I had," said Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao (R-La.). Cao recalled his ability to make Federal Emergency Management Agency officials help his constituents still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. "I can go into a federal agency, and people would jump."

But that wasn't enough: Democrats took back Cao's seat this fall, making him one of the three Republican freshmen to lose. One day before Thanksgiving, his aides were already beginning to pack up the photos that decorated his office. "Do we have bubble wrap?" one called to the other.

Yes, the staffer said. "Lots of it?" came the reply. Cao is now in Cubicle 89.

By Dec. 1, those who weren't returning had all moved out of their offices, and workers had removed the metal nameplates by the doors. (The plates are screwed on, not glued, for easy changing.) Some of those nameplates now sit, grandly, in the spare chairs in lawmakers' cubicles.

In the process of moving, some of the lawmakers ran into the next class of freshmen, scoping out the offices for themselves. These encounters sometimes evoked a rare and mysterious emotion on Capitol Hill: empathy.

"We're excited, and then they're kind of down," said Rep.-elect Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.), who beat Hare in November. "You feel kind of bad for them, the ones that are leaving."

Sometime in the next week or two, when Congress finishes its lame-duck session, the outgoing members of Congress will have to surrender their laptops and BlackBerrys, though they get to keep the lapel pins that mark them as a member of Congress.

For now, they work in Rayburn B339, the waiting room to the real world.

"The dominant emotion is pride," said Chris Carney (D-Pa.). He is one of the happier ones. He said he'll miss friends and the chance to tinker with the health-care law. But it was a good run: "Being the lowest life-form in Congress is still not a bad thing."

In Cubicle 48, Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) is not as cheerful. Asked if there was anything he'd miss about Capitol Hill, Driehaus acted as if he'd been asked if he'd miss a toothache. He laughed a short, derisive laugh.

"No," said Driehaus, who was defeated after one term. "It's a job. I mean, I lost an election. I move on. You know, that's the way I view it. I'm not real stuck on being a member of Congress."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the place. So, would he ever run again?

"I might," he said.

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