Three Va. freshmen arrive on the Hill for 'daunting' first day of work

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 10:34 PM

Amid all the pomp, circumstance and history-making Wednesday on Capitol Hill, three Virginia Republicans went through a more basic ritual: their first day in a new job.

The start of the 112th Congress brought a huge class of 82 first-time Republican representatives to the House, including H. Morgan Griffith, Robert Hurt and Scott Rigell. Each of them defeated an incumbent Democrat, making Virginia the leading edge of a wave that swept Republicans into power across the country.

All three Republican freshmen are conservative, and all eagerly support the House GOP leadership's plans to quickly cut spending and President Obama's health-care reform measure.

"I think the resolve of these freshman members is something to be reckoned with," Rigell said. "There is a general agreement on these core fiscal principles, and I think that's what you'll see first - a real commitment to fiscal discipline."

The coming weeks will bring plenty of meaty votes and decisions on policy issues. Wednesday was more about ceremony, as the new lawmakers took the oath of office and soaked in their surroundings.

"It's exciting," Hurt said. "It's humbling. It's a great privilege . . . but at the same time, it's also very daunting."

As a freshman, Hurt was not entitled to the most spacious of offices. His compact suite on the fifth floor of the Longworth House Office Building was barely decorated Wednesday morning, the bookshelves empty and the walls lacking the photos and Virginia-themed mementos that are sure to come.

"It's not huge, but I have nothing to compare it to," Hurt said of his new digs.

But the office was full of people - well-wishers, staff members and more than 50 volunteers who had boarded a bus before 5 a.m. to travel from Hurt's 5th District, which includes Charlottesville and Danville, to Washington for the day's ceremonies.

Seniority certainly has its benefits. That was clear two floors lower down in Longworth, where veteran Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) had commandeered the House Agriculture Committee hearing room for a joint reception he hosted with Griffith.

Unlike Hurt's office, the hearing room was bright and spacious, with a huge balcony that offered visitors from Griffith's and Goodlatte's districts the chance to pose for pictures with the Capitol as a backdrop.

Goodlatte, who has represented the Roanoke-based 6th District since 1993, said he was eager to work with his three freshman colleagues from the state.

"It's very exciting for me because we're back in the majority, and Virginia has played a big part in that," Goodlatte said.

Roger Brandt, a retired engineer from Bedford County, was one of hundreds of Virginians who made the trip to Washington on Wednesday. Brandt said he lived in Goodlatte's district but was near the border of Griffith's district, had worked for Hurt's campaign and was looking forward to the new Congress.

"It's going to be exciting because of all the inexperienced, non-career politicians," Brandt said.

When Griffith arrived at the reception, he hoisted his son in his arms - his wife and other two children stood behind him - and choked up while explaining that he had run for Congress to secure a better future for them.

Asked later what he would think of when he took the oath of office, Griffith gestured toward his children and said, "I'm sure I'm going to be thinking of these guys."

Rigell, meanwhile, had a gathering for family members and supporters Wednesday afternoon at the Capitol Hill Club, an upscale venue that frequently hosts Republican events and fundraisers.

Rigell was delayed in attending the reception because his new responsibilities got in the way - he had to vote.

"I literally ran here," Rigell said on his arrival, clearly out of breath. "Not very congressional-looking, I'm sure, as I was passing the tour groups."

In addition to getting dibs on a committee room, Goodlatte's seniority helped him in another respect. As a member of the Republican steering committee, he was able to ensure that his fellow Virginians got prime panel assignments.

At his reception Wednesday, Rigell noted that he had gotten a seat on the Armed Services Committee - a must given the heavy military presence in the 2nd District, which covers Virginia Beach and parts of Norfolk and Hampton - as well as the Homeland Security Committee and the Science, Space and Technology panel. Griffith snagged a seat on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, and Hurt received a coveted slot on the Financial Services Committee.

November's election markedly changed the makeup of the Virginia congressional delegation. The partisan breakdown shifted from a 6-5 Democratic advantage to an 8-3 Republican edge. Griffith beat longtime Rep. Rick Boucher (D), and Hurt and Rigell defeated freshman Reps. Tom Perriello (D) and Glenn Nye (D), respectively. Another first-term Democrat, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, held his seat by fewer than 1,000 votes.

"I'm glad that Virginia led in that," Rigell said. "We knew that if Virginia won these three seats - we wanted to win four - it would bode well for the rest of the country, and it did."

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